Tumblr Icon RSS Icon

“Just the facts” on climate science

By Joe Romm  

"“Just the facts” on climate science"


google plus icon

The Chicago Tribune Online has a helpful Q&A that summarizes where climate science stands today.  It also addresses the IPCC, emails, and temperature stations issues.

Its “just the facts” approach is superior to more than 90% of what has been written by the media these days (see Boykoff on “Exaggerating Denialism: Media Representations of Outlier Views on Climate Change” and here):

The only small flaw in the piece is it only randomly links to original sources, so I have added the relevant links below.

Is there scientific consensus?

The 2007 report from the IPCC, a group of scientists from 113 countries who studied the peer-reviewed research, concluded they are 90 percent confident that global warming is caused by humans. Scientific research does not claim anything with absolute certainty, but this is about as close as it gets.

The conclusion that humans are causing global warming also is shared by the National Academy of Sciences, the nation’s leading scientific advisory body, and similar academies in 18 other countries.

The level of confidence has increased over the years as research improved. A 1975 report from the National Academy concluded “we do not have a good quantitative understanding of our climate machine and what determines its course. Without the fundamental understanding, it does not seem possible to predict climate.”

By 2001, with more information in hand, the Academy was more certain: “Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise.”

Scientists say the changes can’t be explained by natural climate influences such as sunspot cycles, volcanic eruptions, water vapor, natural absorption of carbon dioxide, or shifts in ocean and atmospheric conditions. Computer models only reproduce warming measured during the past 50 years when the observed increase in greenhouse gases is included.

“This is not a small change in the history of climate,” said Ray Pierrehumbert, a University of Chicago geophysicist who helped write an earlier IPCC report.

But the IPCC report said most of the Himalayan glaciers would be gone by 2035. Isn’t that false?

Yes, two sentences in a section of the report erroneously stated that 80 percent of the Himalayan glaciers would soon be gone due to climate change. The conclusion is attributed to an environmental group’s report, but isn’t backed up by the peer-reviewed science.

The IPCC acknowledged that the statement, buried in the group’s 3,000-page report, slipped through procedures intended to ensure that only valid research is cited. Peer review helps provide that check by requiring scientific papers to be vetted by other scientists before publication.

Still, the IPCC says the broader conclusion hasn’t changed: Many glaciers already have melted significantly, which could affect the water supply for more than one-sixth of the world’s population. Though some glaciers have grown, the rate of melting has accelerated worldwide since the 1970s, according to multiple independent studies.

Did the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration misplace weather stations and exaggerate warming?

Anthony Watts, a weather forecaster whose Web sites, Watts Up With That and surfacestations.org, have become focal points for climate skeptics, enlisted volunteers across the country to photograph weather stations. Citing NOAA’s own criteria, Watts concluded last year that hundreds of the stations were in poorly located sites, next to parking lots or heating vents or other areas that could inflate temperatures.

“The U.S. temperature record is unreliable,” Watts concluded. “And since the U.S. record is thought to be the best in the world, it follows that the global database is likely similarly compromised and unreliable.”

A new peer-reviewed study by scientists at the National Climatic Data Center, the federal office that tracks climate trends, agrees that problems with the locations of many weather stations are real.

But the temperature records from the poorly located stations cited by Watts actually have a slightly cool bias, not a warm one, according to the review, scheduled to be published in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres.

“Fortunately, the sites with good exposure, though small in number, are reasonably well distributed across the country,” the researchers concluded, adding that the “good” or better stations cited by Watts show warming over time similar to NOAA’s overall data.

There also are multiple other surface and satellite measurements of global temperatures, all of which show a warming trend….

What about the “Climategate” e-mails?

More than 1,000 e-mails were stolen from the computer server of a research center at the University of East Anglia in southeast England. The messages show some scientists discussed how to block skeptics from obtaining data, wrote derisively about their critics and competitors, and discussed ways to hide data.

The e-mails, some of which date more than a decade, show one group of scientists privately were less certain about some of their conclusions even as they said publicly they were certain about the larger issue of climate change. But several independent reviews, including ones by The Associated Press and Penn State University, have found there is no evidence that any of their science was faked.

See Penn State inquiry finds no evidence for allegations against Michael Mann.

One e-mail that skeptics have seized upon refers to scientific efforts to reconstruct past temperatures. Phil Jones, then the director of the East Anglia center, wrote: “I’ve just completed Mike’s trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the past 20 years (from 1981 onward) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.”

At issue was some high-latitude tree-ring data that stopped matching observed temperatures in the 1960s. The “trick” refers to a technique that Penn State scientist Michael Mann published in the journal Nature in 1998. Mann plotted more recent temperature data along with earlier tree-ring data. The decline discussed in the e-mail didn’t involve “hiding” actual temperatures but rather what Mann and others considered the declining reliability of some tree-ring data, Mann has said.

Scientists are still trying to figure out why some high-latitude tree-ring data matches decades of earlier temperature records, but the two sets of data stopped correlating in the 1960s. One theory, outlined in a 1995 paper from East Anglia climate scientist Keith Briffa, is that tree growth is becoming more sensitive to changes in temperature.

Mark Frankel, director of scientific freedom, responsibility and law at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, reviewed the e-mails frequently cited by skeptics for the AP and said he found “no evidence of falsification or fabrication of data, although concerns could be raised about some instances of very ‘generous interpretations.’”

See Must read AP analysis of stolen emails: An “exhaustive review” shows “the exchanges don’t undercut the vast body of evidence showing the world is warming because of man-made greenhouse gas emissions.”

Penn State conducted its own academic inquiry of Mann, concluding: “The so-called ‘trick’ was nothing more than a statistical method used to bring two or more different kinds of data sets together in a legitimate fashion by a technique that has been reviewed by a broad array of peers in the field.” The university inquiry also found no evidence that Mann falsified or suppressed data, tried to destroy data or e-mails, or misused information.

Another panel will probe whether Mann violated academic rules governing exchanges between scientists.

Then there is a December editorial from Nature, a respected British scientific journal: “Nothing in the e-mails undermines the scientific case that global warming is real “” or that human activities are almost certainly the cause. That case is supported by multiple, robust lines of evidence, including several that are completely independent of the climate reconstructions debated in the e-mails.”

See Nature editorial here.

It snowed a lot on the East Coast last month. What does that mean?

Scientists say they don’t have the ability to look at a single year or single weather event and determine whether it could be attributed to climate change. Temperatures fluctuate from year to year, but the long-term average has been increasing.

Citing peer-reviewed research, the IPCC concluded that severe weather “” blizzards, droughts, hurricanes, floods and the like “” could become more common as the climate changes. But several scientists said they still don’t have the ability to determine if that’s happening now. And studies have shown that snowstorms tend to happen during warmer-than-usual winters, in part due to added moisture in the air.

“We don’t know for sure if these tipping points are out there, or if they are, how soon we could cross them,” said Michael Schlesinger, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Illinois.

Didn’t scientists predict in the 1970s that we were experiencing global cooling and heading toward another Ice Age?

Those who make that argument frequently cite mid-1970s cover stories in Time and Newsweek. But a 2008 scientific review of published studies between 1965 and 1979 show the vast majority predicted global warming. “The myth’s basis lies in a selective misreading of the texts both by some members of the media at the time and by some observers today,” the review concluded.

See Killing the myth of the 1970s global cooling scientific consensus.

What is happening with ice in Antarctica?

The U.S. Geological Survey reported last week that “every ice front in the southern part of the Antarctic Peninsula has been retreating overall from 1947 to 2009, with the most dramatic changes occurring since 1990.” Ice lost from the Wilkins Ice Sheet alone “totals more than 4,000 square kilometers, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.”

See USGS reports dramatic retreat of ice shelves in southern Antarctic Peninsula

Meanwhile, sea ice in the Antarctic has increased since satellite measurements began in 1979, even though the oceans have been getting warmer. Scientists attribute that to a variety of factors, including strong winds that create more open water conducive to forming sea ice.

Why is such straight reporting so rare these days?

‹ Heritage Foundation Has Lost Its Grip On Reality, Calls Science ‘Magic’

Obama advocates energy efficiency as job creator with ‘Cash for Caulkers’ program ›

20 Responses to “Just the facts” on climate science

  1. lgcarey says:

    Straight reporting is so rare because the actual facts, when viewed overall, point in exactly one direction — a warming climate. Which means that the reporter can’t cover the “horserace” and quote dueling sources in order to provide a sense of drama and conflict (not to mention sowing confusion).

  2. Louise says:

    Wow, great, concise information. Been wondering where I can find something this succinct.

  3. Ben Lawson says:

    Maybe there is hope of objective reporting after all… I’m sure the denialist storm-troopers are filling the comments with vitriol and baseless complaints though.

  4. mike roddy says:

    Watts still shows up on Fox as a climate expert, in spite of the fact that his Temperature Station Project has been shown to be a joke. His website traffic is up, too.

    These are also facts, which you have done an excellent job of reporting here on CP, but where is the media on this? This is so obvious that even a conservative paper should cover it. The fact that none of them have is cause for serious concern.

  5. paulm says:

    Quite interesting….

    Report: climate, not beetles, main cause of forest fires

  6. Doug Bostrom says:

    I wonder if Fred Pearce might want to take a cue from this?

  7. The Wonderer says:

    This is much more than “just the facts.” It is the facts presented in an appropriate context and in which the usual “he said she said” is pleasantly missing.

  8. adrian says:

    Just used this in my Rhetoric 101 class this evening as a good example of clear, fact-based reporting. It stimulated a lively discussion about global warming awareness, which information sources to believe, and what we all ought to be doing to confront the problem.

  9. Kate Delaney says:

    Objective reporting will definitely be a great help. People tend to sit back and relax without facts presented and understood in layman’s term.

  10. Brooks Bridges says:

    Great to see this. I’ll salt it away. I’ve been wanting a concise summary.

    I have one fault to find: There’s nothing about the predictions of the consequences of AGW and the “stich in time” urgency of combatting it. Perhaps that will be in a future article?

  11. caerbannog says:

    Another interesting article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/04/science/earth/04climate.html?ref=global-home&pagewanted=all


    The linkage of evolution and global warming is partly a legal strategy: courts have found that singling out evolution for criticism in public schools is a violation of the separation of church and state. By insisting that global warming also be debated, deniers of evolution can argue that they are simply championing academic freedom in general.

  12. Richard Brenne says:

    Good, but like the IPCC itself, conservative.

    Two key omissions:

    Include Gerald Meehl’s study that heat records are more than doubling cold records since January 1, 2000. Temperatures are the essence of global warming and need to be discussed first and foremost in anything like this, because they’re simpler and more clear than precipitation.

    Then Meehl’s models show that without addressing climate change the current 2 to 1 ratio could rise to a 20 to 1 heat to cold record ratio by 2050 and 50 to 1 by 2100. In other words, despite the drama of what we have seen, sadly and tragically “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

    Here’s an example of the conservatism of the Tribune’s statements:

    “Citing peer-reviewed research, the IPCC concluded that severe weather — blizzards, droughts, hurricanes, floods and the like — could become more common as the climate changes. But several scientists said they still don’t have the ability to determine if that’s happening now.”

    First, heat waves and records versus cold snaps and records should be the primary focus and aren’t mentioned. But if keeping the first sentence, consider changing the second to:

    “Most scientists think that we’re seeing trends in those directions, especially in the most dramatic events. Most also expect these trends to increase, at some point dramatically, especially if CO2 emissions are not appropriately addressed.”

  13. Richard Brenne says:

    Also like most media they take the scientists too much to task for ClimateGate. Almost all media has reported this as if the focus should be on what those like the Watergate burglars found rather than the crime itself. (And is anyone going to do their job as a “reporter” and investigate why they were found on a Russian server?)

    In the Tribune’s descriptions they emphasize the “hiding” (using the term three times) rather than the “reconciliation” of data. And when the most knowledgeable scientists don’t want to see what they consider to be erroneous or ideological or agenda-driven “science” published because they think its junk science that drags their discipline down rather than lifting it up, who can blame them? The Tribune’s entire approach to ClimateGate, as most of the media’s has been, is basically backwards.

    Instead of the nine paragraphs they give ClimateGate (and my four more!) that gives it legitimacy to someone skimming this piece and thinking “Nine paragraphs – it must be a real scandal”, I’d sum it up more succinctly with something like “The ClimateGate scandals are appropriately named when discussing the theft of a decade’s worth of e-mails and the tempest in a thimble overreaction to their content. But the fact that some human beings including scientists get cranky when they encounter less-expert colleagues pushing for the publication of junk science doesn’t change the physics of fossil fuel burning, CO2 emissions and warming at all – as each of our descendents will tragically find out.”

    (Okay, there might be a smidgen of my opinion in there, but I think it’s more accurate and concise than what they wrote.)

  14. Mike says:

    my posts with opposing viewpoints keep getting deleted….amazing….I guess you guys do not like discussing the topic….just like you dodge debate on global warming…amazing….

  15. Mike says:

    I mean is this a site to discuss or not? You tell me?

  16. David B. Benson says:

    I compute the decadal average GISTEMP global tempeerature anomaly (GTA) using (1) the Arrhenius formula with the average CO2 concentration from the previous decade (AE) and (2) about A=(1/3) of the decadal average AMO for the current decade. The former accounts for 96% of the observed variance and the latter for another 3% due to internal variability and minor forcings. The inescapable conclusion is that it is the CO2:

    OGTR for 2xCO2 = 2.304 A= 0.333 RMS= 0.022 R^2= 0.991
    decade GTA AE residual AMO
    1880s -0.275 -0.258 -0.017 +0.052
    1890s -0.254 -0.236 -0.018 -0.017
    1900s -0.259 -0.247 -0.012 -0.124
    1910s -0.276 -0.243 -0.033 -0.205
    1920s -0.175 -0.179 +0.004 -0.138
    1930s -0.043 -0.044 +0.001 +0.150
    1940s +0.035 -0.013 +0.048 +0.107
    1950s -0.020 +0.011 -0.031 +0.138
    1960s -0.014 -0.006 -0.008 +0.003
    1970s -0.001 -0.013 +0.012 -0.241
    1980s +0.176 +0.145 +0.031 -0.098
    1990s +0.313 +0.325 -0.012 +0.009
    2000s +0.513 +0.524 -0.011 +0.187
    2010s ??.??? +0.690
    The prediction uses the CO2 concentration from the 2000s and the AMO from the same decade, reasonable for such a slow changing index.

  17. Richard Brenne says:

    Mike (#14, #15) -

    To discuss in productive ways, yes. That means the comments Joe lets through (and he impresses me as an editor and writer more than the entire staffs of the NYT, WSJ and Washington Post combined on all climate and energy issues) are sincere and written in good faith. Those that could be written by spam programs or that suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect of the writer thinking that they know more than all the world’s climate scientists put together might not be productive for discussion.

    Back to the Chicago Tribune’s excellent effort:

    Then the obvious question is of course, how many people will come to the Chicago Tribune on-line to read this? Compared to reading the NY Times, Washington Post or Wall Street Journal’s op-ed and occasionally front-page information that isn’t this clear and accurate? Compared to those who watch Fox News? Compared to those who watch all TV news? Compared to those who watch TV weather forecasters who almost never say anything like this on air?

    The good science like this needs to get out there more than disinformation, misinformation, confusing, too-complex, too-long and too caveat-ridden stuff. Right now this good stuff is here on Climate Progress, RealClimate, the government and institutional websites, occasional mainstream articles like this and the bad stuff is everywhere else, at something like a 1 to 100 ratio of good stuff to bad in all media combined.

    We need to do everything in our power to change that, with this a good if small and sometimes conservative contribution.

  18. Jeff says:

    I have a question about the surface temperature data series going back to 1900 and beyond. What adjustments are made in the data for the urban heat island effect. The majority of weather stations around the world (not every obviously) have changed from a more rural area to a more urban area over the years. Airports that once were located in open fields are now located in concrete jungles. Is the raw data used or is there some adjustment for the warmer site changes. My experience dealing with weather eqipment/sensors is that 95% of the time when a sensor starts to go bad or the statation has an issue it reads warm not cold…we see this all the time around the world. How is this accounted for also?

    Thanks in advance.

  19. David B. Benson says:

    Jeff (18) — NOAA/NCDC, NASA/GISS, HadCRU and JMA all have slightly different methods of adjusting for UHI, which turns out to be a minor effect in any case. The data comes from about 4 times as many weather stations as is needed to adequately cover to globe so any failing instruments are quickly noticed.

  20. Sou says:

    It’s okay, but I go along with the comments of others. The main reason it passes muster is because it’s factual. But I’m not sure who the audience is. For example – by saying in the first sentence ‘a group of scientists’ it implies the scientists are alike and act as a group. That’s not the case at all. The only thing the thousands of writers and reporters from around the world have in common is that they work in a field related to climate science.

    I’d like to see an article that more succinctly shows up the fallacies around the world. It could start with a couple of short paras saying what global warming is and what it will mean – in simplistic terms.

    It’s like saying my hubby should get a pat on the back for doing the dishes :D