On Pillar Toppling

I have a day off today and have been surfing a number of websites looking at elements of the skeptic criticism of AGW theory.

Toppling Pillars

Chylek’s letter got me thinking about these pillars he sees as being undermined by the CRU emails and why I have been so little moved by all the evidence skeptics have put forward. It’s likely because, in the end, no real pillars were toppled.

If you go into a house and build a pillar or three in the interior and then topple them, the house remains standing — because it was not premised on those pillars in the first place.

I have found repeated in various locations on the skeptosphere reference to the “pillars” of man-made or anthropogenic global warming and efforts to topple them.  However, when I ponder what I read, I have come to the conclusion that the pillars the skeptics are toppling are “their” pillars — pillars they have created in order to topple. Strawmen, in other words.

In my opinion, the real AGW pillars are:

  1. Measured increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2 and other GHGs to levels not seen in hundreds of thousands of years
  2. Theory of the greenhouse effect
  3. Measures of climate sensitivity
  4. Globally averaged temperature record over the past 150 years and other temperature records via ground based, satellite, sea surface temps.
  5. Evidence of environmental impacts of warming — sea level increases, arctic ice extent, antarctic melting and ice extent, glacier retreat, impact on animals and plants, droughts, etc.

I don’t include the model predictions or hockey stick and issue of paleoclimate because logically, the models are tools used to explore the above pillars and as to the hockey stick and paleoclimate, it is entirely possible for it to have been warmer a thousand years ago due to natural influences and GHGs could still pose a threat to our climate, leading to unprecedented warming.

This decision of mine can be argued, and yes, the TAR includes sections on paleoclimate and models.

Keep in mind that skeptics and deniers hold the hockey stick and paleoclimate reconstructions as one of the pillars of the man-made global warming theory. They view toppling it as a major accomplishment that undermines the theory as a whole.

So, what does the TAR say about paleoclimate?  The section on paleoclimate asks and answers the question — is current warming unprecedented? However, they were truly quite circumspect in the assessment report.

Here is a bit of the report, to refresh our recollection:

From the TAR, Summary for Policymakers:

  • New analyses of proxy data for the Northern Hemisphere indicate that the increase in temperature in the 20th century is likely7 to have been the largest of any century during the past 1,000 years. It is also likely7 that, in the Northern Hemisphere, the 1990s was the warmest decade and 1998 the warmest year (Figure 1b). Because less data are available, less is known about annual averages prior to 1,000 years before present and for conditions prevailing in most of the Southern Hemisphere prior to 1861.[my emphasis]

(Note: in IPCC terms, “likely” means between 66-90%)

Keep in mind that they made it very clear that they were talking only about the Northern Hemisphere as data for the Southern Hemisphere is very sparse.

Here’s a section from the TAR Assessment Report, Paleoclimate:

Several important caveats must be borne in mind when using tree-ring data for palaeoclimate reconstructions. Not least is the intrinsic sampling bias. Tree-ring information is available only in terrestrial regions, so is not available over substantial regions of the globe, and the climate signals contained in tree-ring density or width data reflect a complex biological response to climate forcing. Non-climatic growth trends must be removed from the tree-ring chronology, making it difficult to resolve time-scales longer than the lengths of the constituent chronologies (Briffa, 2000). Furthermore, the biological response to climate forcing may change over time. There is evidence, for example, that high latitude tree-ring density variations have changed in their response to temperature in recent decades, associated with possible non-climatic factors (Briffa et al., 1998a). By contrast, Vaganov et al. (1999) have presented evidence that such changes may actually be climatic and result from the effects of increasing winter precipitation on the starting date of the growing season (see Section Carbon dioxide fertilization may also have an influence, particularly on high-elevation drought-sensitive tree species, although attempts have been made to correct for this effect where appropriate (Mann et al., 1999). Thus climate reconstructions based entirely on tree-ring data are susceptible to several sources of contamination or non-stationarity of response. For these reasons, investigators have increasingly found tree-ring data most useful when supplemented by other types of proxy information in “multi-proxy” estimates of past temperature change (Overpeck et al., 1997; Jones et al., 1998; Mann et al., 1998; 1999; 2000a; 2000b; Crowley and Lowery, 2000).

You can see that this section is quite chaste in its description of the use of tree ring chronologies for temperature reconstructions. It even mentions the dread “Briffa divergence” issue.

Right there for all the world to see.

This is why the whole attack on paleoclimate by skeptics and denialists is so suspect in my opinion.  The scientists were very forthright discussing the problems with the use of tree rings, even mentioning divergence and bias, etc. The paleoclimate data is seen as being quite uncertain such that they felt empowered to only use “likely” in the summary for policymakers.

While I acknowledge that paleoclimate recons have been used to bolster the case for policy action by many AGW advocates such as Gore and others, the science itself is not premised on paleoclimate, reconstructions or the hockey stick.

In an effort to undermine the IPCC, skeptics and denialists have attacked the science and scientists, looking for errors and mistakes and blowing them up into evidence of fraud and hoax, where IMO, none exists.  What they should have been attacking is those who misrepresented the science as being more certain than it really was. The IPCC report is what it is — all of us can go and check it out.  What I have posted shows the uncertainties.

What is done with that by the politicians, special interests and journalists is a whole other issue.

Personally, I think that this misplaced attack on the science and the scientists involved in paleoclimate (and other areas — more on that later) is a very sad, sad episode in our history at a time when science is all the more important to understanding what we may face from global warming.

While not every skeptic is part of a larger concerted strategy to discredit the science and scientists, their work is nonetheless used in order to diminish public support for the concept of global warming, its links to burning of fossil fuels and the need for policy action. The way Latif’s comments were taken out of context and trupeted around the world by denialists shows how this occurs.

I’ll look at models at another time.

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15 Responses to “On Pillar Toppling”

  1. Susann,
    You identify a number of your pillars, but I believe you hold additional unexamined and unnamed pillars.

    If you reject these pillars, please let me know which ones you reject:

    1. Science papers supporting AGW are written without bias and accurately reflect the data and personal views of the scientists.

    2. Surface temperature records accurately reflect warming without any unwarranted or unjustified adjustments to the raw data.

    3. Science papers would report any verification stats which do not support their conclusions.

    Regarding #1, see

    Regarding #2, see http://www.eastangliaemails.com/emails.php?eid=1016&filename=.txt

    Regarding #3, see http://www.uoguelph.ca/~rmckitri/research/Climate_L.pdf

    I do not think you fully understand the situation in #3. I could provide some info on some of your stated pillars, but need to get to an event.

    Best wishes, Susann.

    • Science papers supporting AGW are written without bias and accurately reflect the data and personal views of the scientists.

      I am a social scientist by training and experience. I look at the social dimensions of human social behaviors and social creations, including science. Science is a human social creation, a tool, a method used to generate knowledge. As such, it is always reflective of and infused with the social, the human.

      There are processes in place to try to minimize those influences, and that is one of the great developments in human history — the scientific method as a means of generating knowledge, with checks and balances intended to minimize bias and outside influence, as opposed to brute power of kings or mystical authority of priests or superstition.

      But it’s never perfect. Human interests determine where science goes. Economics intrudes on science and affects what gets funded. Politics intrude and set agendas at broader levels.

      It’s not perfect and the IPCC is not perfect and the science underpinning AGW is not perfect — because it is done by mere hominids. I don’t condone sloppy work and improper process, but at the same time, what I see happening in the contrarian / skeptic camp is an attack on the science and scientists — not because they actually care about the facts, but because they want to muddy them, raise doubt about them.

      The distortion of Latif’s words is clear evidence of this and it is just one example.

      As to your second point — of course surface temperature records are adjusted — there are many valid reasons to adjust and IIRC, not the least among them the fact that most of the record is based on weather stations that were not meant to be used as part of a system of measuring globally averaged temperature. They were meant to provide local communities with weather information.

      There are peer-reviewed papers explaining what adjustments exist and why. Can you provide me with evidence to question these adjustments?

      As to number three — I thought I already commented on the “censored” file. You don’t accept my and their answers as valid. Fair enough, but don’t keep bringing it up as if it’s somehow new ground. We must agree to disagree on this unless someone can convince me that their response is wrong. I read the article at McKitrick’s website. I read it a long while ago. It is a nice opinion piece but nothing more IMO.

  2. Susann,
    Okay, so you admit you have pillars other than the ones named. That is a step forward.

    I am not sure you have come to grips with the evidence I presented. The first email is Keith Briffa talking about how he thinks the MWP was as warm as today, but none of his papers say that. The IPCC chapter he authored doesn’t say that. Doesn’t that bother you?

    The second email I linked was a proposal to adjust SST temps by 0.15C. It was a goal oriented suggestion to make the graph look better. It doesn’t read well and makes one wonder what kinds of shenanigans were going on with the temp record.

    The third link was to the Dutch science magazine article which “did it for me.” The fact Mann ran verification tests that did not support his conclusions and then did not report it in his paper is academic misconduct. It is somewhat akin to a cancer researcher not reporting that a patient died right after administration of a investigational new drug. Not good.

    • Ron, what pillar are you referring to?

      As to Keith Briffa — if his papers were not meant to address the issue of whether the MWP exists and whether it was warmer, cooler or the same as today, why would he mention it? Not all dendro papers are expected to take a position on this issue. In fact, I suppose most will not. Besides, the research is very uncertain and the evidence is not good enough for there to be firm conclusions about the medieval era, if I read North (NSA) correctly. We can reliably go back only to 1600. Before that, the uncertainties become too great to make any kind of firm conclusion. If you look at the hockey stick, the error bars are very wide the farther back you go, and so it is entirely possible that the medieval period was as warm as some periods in the 20th C. Maybe Briffa suspected it was as warm but maybe he didn’t feel the evidence was strong enough to support that conclusion. I don’t know — perhaps someone could actually ask him instead of speculation.

      Ron, as to the “censored” issue, I want someone with expertise and authority to show me that doing so was wrong and why. I won’t take your word and I’m not familiar with the ins and outs of writing up scientific research papers and statistics to know if what they did was academic misconduct. If it was, then yes, I would agree it was a bad thing to do but I don’t see that Mann was charged with academic misconduct and I would prefer to take someone’s word who adjudicates these things over you. Sorry.

      • Susann,
        Regarding Briffa, the email clearly states he feels the MWP was as warm as today. The chapter he wrote for the IPCC says the opposite of that. He is promoting an agenda, not science.

        Regarding Mann, it is not really the “censored” issue. That was just the name of the folder he put the test results in. He obviously did not expect anyone to go to that folder and look in it. But re-read the magazine article and try to come to terms with the issue. Then go ask someone who publishes research. Ask “If you ran a verification test on your research and it failed one test but passed another test, would you disclose that fact to journal editors and readers?” The answer you get will tell you a lot about the ethics of the researcher.

        • Ron, here is what the IPCC AR4 says about the MWP:

          While there are differences among those reconstructions and significant uncertainties remain, all published reconstructions find that temperatures were warm during medieval times, cooled to low values in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and warmed rapidly after that. The medieval level of warmth is uncertain, but may have been reached again in the mid-20th century, only to have likely been exceeded since then. These conclusions are supported by climate modelling as well.

          I think that reflects the uncertainty about the existence of the MWP in the literature from what I have read. Admittedly, I am not an expert, but there does still appear to be a debate about this and what can be said about the evidence back to the MWP, and whether it was hemispheric or global.

          • Susann,
            You are proving my point. The IPCC report chapter on paleoclimate was authored by Briffa. Here the report says it is likely the late 20th century was warmer than the WMP, while the emails indicate he really believes they are equal.

            There was no uncertainty in the literature about the WMP prior to MBH98. Mann tried to photoshop the temperature history of earth. Briffa went along with it because it helped the cause of saving the planet.

            • The section states that the warmth of the MWP was reached in the 20th century — only to be surpassed later so maybe that’s a true reflection of what he thought.

              • Susann,
                You wrote “The section states that the warmth of the MWP was reached in the 20th century — only to be surpassed later so maybe that’s a true reflection of what he thought.”

                This is not exactly accurate. The section says it “may have been reached again in the mid-20th century, only to have likely been exceeded since then.”

                If you read the email I cited Briffa was writing in 1999 not the 1950s. He had already seen the “warmest year on record.”

  3. Susann,

    Your second unexamined and unnamed pillar I described as:

    2. Surface temperature records accurately reflect warming without any unwarranted or unjustified adjustments to the raw data.

    Again, if you reject this pillar, just let me know.

    This pillar is having more trouble again yesterday. Have you seen this? http://wattsupwiththat.com/2010/01/26/new-paper-on-surface-temperature-records/

    Perhaps you will need to turn your attention to criticizing Anthony Watts, Joseph D’Aleo and E.M. Smith.

    D’Aleo and Watts wrote a nice Summary for Policymakers on page 4. You might want to start with that to see if any of your pillars might be shaken.

    • Ron, I perused Watt and D’Aleo paper — it does not meet the standard I would expect for a scientific paper — it’s a lot of opinion without much fact backing it up and it was published by a clearly global warming skeptic organization on which D’Aleo is a member.

      In the first section on the temperature record, there is referenced Pilke Sr. paper and “Klotzbach et al” which is a paper co-authored by — wait for it — Pilkes Sr. and Jr. and Christy. Which was pretty much trashed by Gavin Schmidt.

      It cites blog posts, editorials in clearly skeptic / denialist media. It quotes non-peer reviewed papers published by skeptical orgs.

      It’s not science, unless a parody of it. It’s opinion masquerading as science that will fool only the ignorant and gullible.

      It’s embarrassing that you’re using this as evidence of anything.

  4. Susann,
    I did not mention this earlier, but your pillars also seem to include the idea that what is claimed about climate science is known to a high degree of certainty. Coming to terms with the real uncertainty would be a great benefit to you.

    See Roger Pielke Sr.’s post regarding an article in Nature at http://pielkeclimatesci.wordpress.com/2010/01/22/interesting-news-article-in-nature-titled-the-real-holes-in-climate-science/

    The news article in Nature lists some ares of uncertainty and Pielke lists others. They all need to be considered.

  5. Check this site out for the latest on the Antarctic temps.

    They seem quite disappointed really. I wonder how they justify the predictions?

    There might be global warming or cooling but the important issue is whether we, as a human race, can do anything about it.

    There are a host of porkies and not very much truth barraging us everyday so its difficult to know what to believe.

    I think I have simplified the issue in an entertaining way on my blog which includes some issues connected with climategate and “embarrassing” evidence.

    In the pipeline is an analysis of the economic effects of the proposed emission reductions. Watch this space or should I say Blog


    Please feel welcome to visit and leave a comment.



    PS The term “porky” is listed in the Australian Dictionary of Slang.( So I’m told.)

  6. Susann

    I’m not commenting on whether the article you are arguing about is suitably peer reviewed or not (never read it actually) but what I would like to point out is your apparent closed mind to anything that challenges your (faith) belief.
    This is evidenced by the terms “Denialist” and “Sceptic” which implies that you will dismiss anything out of hand which does not support your views.

    Now the well-being of our planet and its inhabitants will not benefit from acts of faith or politics. However unbiased truths are the only road that will certainly benefit the world.
    To arrive at the truth, every belief, hypothesis and explanation must be questioned.This is of course essential and good scientific procedure. Therefore if your beliefs are shaken by any actual facts that are brought to your attention, you should then think seriously about modifying those beliefs unless you want to depend completely on faith.

    Faith in what I dont know. The IPCC? Al Gore? Climate Scientists?

    Would be easier to have faith in them if they werent making so much incredible wealth out of all this and much more to come.

    So Susann I’m going to test your mind.
    Please start by reading my blog http://www.rogerfromnewzealand.wordpress.com and leave a comment there if you wish. I always approve them so long as they dont contain obscenities. Profanities and blasphemies are tolerable.

    Secondly I want you to put an hour aside and watch this documentary.
    It includes interviews with IPCC scientists and the co founder of Greenpeace. If you are 100% sure with your facts you will be OK. If not it will knock you for a six.


    Looking forward to your critique,




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