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Ahead of the upcoming IPCC report into global climate, and climate change, the news agenda seems to been largely dominated by stories asking why global warming has paused for the last 15 years (see the BBC, the BBC again, the torygraph and the NZ herald among countless other examples).

A substantial part of this seems to be the repeat of familiar claims that 1998 was the hottest year on global record, and if global warming scientists were right there is no way that we should not have a seen a hotter year during the past 15 years. Hence, climate change has paused, the models and data suggesting that human fossil fuel emissions were to blame for late 20th century warming were wrong, and that consequently any argument for restricting emissions in future are null and void.

Which of course ought to lead to the question, who says that 1998 was the hottest year on record? Well the answer to this is somewhat complicated, but also somewhat revealing. It aint NASA, who run GISStemp (the Goddard Institute for Space Studies Surface Temperature Analysis) who have 2010 as the hottest year on record followed by 2005, with 9 of the 10 hottest years occurring after the year 2000 (with 1998 as the only pre-2000 year in that list).  It also isn’t NOAA (the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) who compile a global temperature record at the National Climactic Data Centre (NCDC), whose data again places 2010 as the hottest year on record, followed by 2005, with 1998 in third, and 9 of the hottest 10 years on record occurring after the year 2000 (ie after global warming has allegedly paused). Which leaves the UK Met Office’s Hadley Centre and and University of East Anglia’s Climactic Research Unit record HadCRU. The CRU is of course the unit who were the subject of the Climategate faux controversy where sceptics hacked emails, published some excepts from private correspondence out of context claiming fraud and data manipulation generating global headlines, and which were subsequently found by numerous independent investigations to have found no evidence of wrongdoing. The latest version of this temperature series is HadCRUT4v which again shows that 2010 was the hottest year on record, followed by 2005, followed by 1998.

So where does the 1998 was the hottest year claim come from? Well, HadCRUT4v is the latest, and most accurate temperature record maintained by the Met Office and CRU (for a detailed explanation of what’s changed look here). If we ignore that and instead use their previous version, HadCRU3v, then, and only then does 1998 appear to be the warmest year on record. So why did this old record suggest a different year to the NASA and NCDC records (and indeed the latest version of the CRU record)? Well the main reason for this was the different methods used to generate global temperatures. Of course none of these institutions are able to measure the temperature in every place in the world, they use stations in various locations, and the places where there tend to be the fewest stations tend to be the polar regions (where there also tend to be the fewest people). And one of the things we know quite well, is that the Arctic has been the fastest warming region on the planet. Whereas GISStemp interpolates values between measured locations in the Arctic, HadCRU3v left them blank as unknown, which introduced a cold bias into their dataset compared with the others, and explaining why it has been replaced by a dataset which features a greater number of stations and which correlates much more strongly with the other datasets.

So the ‘pause’ in climate change is something that only exists if you exclusively look at a now obsolete and known to be biased dataset generated by a group who those using this data have previously claimed to be frauds. And decide to ignore that 1998 was in any case a super El-nino which had a dramatic short term effect on global weather – hence the other 9 of the 10 hottest years on record all occurring since the year 2000. If you used 1997 or 1999 as start dates there wouldn’t appear to be any pause in any dataset (outdated or otherwise), but cherry-picking the year when specific short-term conditions made things abnormally hot added to cherry-picking a now obsolete dataset allows sceptics to make the global warming has paused argument (see this excellent skeptical science post for details on cherry-picking)

So why are so many mainstream media outlets focussing upon this as the main story in the lead up to the IPCC report? Probably because it’s a more sensationalist and conflict-driven story than one which reads science has been slowing progressing, turning a 90% confidence in predictions in 2007 into a 95% confidence by 2013, allied with a big PR drive from a number of the main players in the climate denial industry.

 

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IPCC Errors

There’s a really good piece over on the Nature website about the recommendations made by an independent assessment of the way in which the IPCC currently functions. (hat tip Realclimate)

It’s worth reading because a lot of the coverage of the report has been over the top sensationalist nonsense about how the IPCC needs drastic reform as a result of serious errors. When these mainstream and sceptic pieces say errors, they all point to one example – the erroneous claim that Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035. One error, which was not in working group 1 (which covers the science of ACC) but appeared in WG2 (impacts adaptation and vulnerability) does not amount to a series of errors.

While right-wing media outlets and sceptic blogs spent a lot of time propagating the idea that there have been other, similar errors with the IPCC 2007 report, such as the Amazongate saga, whose main claims the Times has now retracted (the Times version is now however behind the Murdoch pay wall), the truth is that the science behind the IPCC 2007 report has stood up pretty well to the intense scrutiny which it has come under. On a related note, the IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri was subjected to an entirely baseless series of accusations claiming that he was making a fortune from his links with carbon trading companies. According to climate sceptics and the right-wing press he was profiteering from his position of head of the IPCC. An independent report into his financial dealings have found all of those claims to be completely and utterly false. Still, as George Monbiot demonstrates, the accusations continue to be made by right-wing media outlets.

In fact the major story about the IPCC getting something wrong is actually about sea level rise. The IPCC admitted in their assessment that they weren’t taking all factors into account, as some were too uncertain, but the reality of empirically observed sea level rise is way above the IPCC’s uppermost prediction.  This prediction wasn’t made using grey literature, it was supposedly based on solid science, and yet it turns out to be totally wrong. So why has there not been widespread outcry in the media about this erroneous prediction? Why are there not legions of sceptical bloggers using this as evidence that the IPCC reports are equal parts guesswork and science, and that their conclusions should be viewed with a large dose of scepticism?

Because the message we get from the IPCC’s most serious error is that their estimates err on the side of conservatism and caution rather than the alarmism they are routinely accused of. Which is really not any great surprise given the consensus based framework they operate within. But if the IPCC’s predictions are too conservative, then the entire sceptic argument goes up in smoke, so very little is heard about the most serious error the IPCC have made. This is somewhat telling, as it suggests that those criticising the IPCC have little interest in improving its procedures and improving its predictions. More often than not it turns out to be the same few voices attempting to sell generalised doubt about climate change in order to prevent any kind of legaslative action being take to mitigate the predictions the science makes.

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The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has recently released a report entitles State of the Climate 2009, which is downloadable in its entirety as a pdf from here, with a web page summarising the report available online here.

The findings of this report, which involved over 300 scientists from 48 countries around the world are further corroboration of the evidence that ‘t the past decade was the warmest on record and that the Earth has been growing warmer over the last 50 years.’ What is interesting about the report, is that it uses a methodology which is well suited to examining a broad range of climactic indicators to build a fairly comprehensive overview of numerous ecological systems and so to be able to map the changes these systems are currently undergoing.

Based on comprehensive data from multiple sources, the report defines 10 measurable planet-wide features used to gauge global temperature changes. The relative movement of each of these indicators proves consistent with a warming world. Seven indicators are rising: air temperature over land, sea-surface temperature, air temperature over oceans, sea level, ocean heat, humidity and tropospheric temperature in the “active-weather” layer of the atmosphere closest to the Earth’s surface. Three indicators are declining: Arctic sea ice, glaciers and spring snow cover in the Northern hemisphere.

By utilising a broad range of indicators, and finding such broad agreement between them the NOAA report provides a good example of the way in which the science behind anthropogenic climate change is based on a vast array of observations which corroborate with the physics behind the greenhouse effect, which gives a causal mechanism to the observations seen in these global climactic systems.

As John Cook from SkepticalScience points out in an article for the Guardian, this kind of rigorous scientific research which seeks to give a good overview of global systems by combining and comparing the observed data for numerous global systems is diametrically opposed methodologically to the kind of material promoted by most climate change skeptics, who seek to prevent meaningful action being taken to reduce the severity of ACC by entirely ignoring the bigger picture – the enormous breadth of data from global systems – instead focusing on minute details such as the choice of proxies used in decade old papers on paleoclimatic reconstructions (the repeatedly vindicated Hockey Stick paper published by Mann Hughes and Bradley) or the choice of wording in private emails between climate researchers (such as Phil Jones’ phrase ‘hide the decline’ to describe the divergence between one particular set of trees used as as a climate proxy and the observed temperature record, which was covered in the published literature on that proxy set).

As the NOAA report highlights, when you look at the big picture, rather than concentrating on minute details, the evidence is that the planet is heating up, that human activity is largely the cause, and that the medium to long term ramifications of these changes will make life far harder for hundreds of millions of people as well as causing the extinction of innumerable other species less capable of adapting to a changing climate. As time goes by and more research is being done, that evidence is only getting stronger as more and more datasets which confirm the findings of the IPCC emerge. However despite this mountain of evidence, the political action that would make meaningful action to mitigate the worst of the potential consequences is still a long way off, with the US Senate’s decision not to even try to get a massively compromised bill through following in the wake of the inability of the world’s political leaders failure to reach any deal at COP15 in Copenhagen last December to succeed the emissions cuts of developed nations agreed under the Kyoto Protocol. With the US seemingly steadfast in its refusal to make any kind of cuts to its emissions, it seems unlikely that other developed nations are going to volunteer further reductions to their own emissions, no matter what the science says, as politicians are too fearful for their own careers, which are largely dependent on short term economic success rather than longer term sustainability.

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Six degrees – Our Future on a Hotter Planet, is the title of Mark Lynas’s 2007 book (this review is from the updated 2008 version) which seeks to give a broad overview of what mainstream scientific opinion (ie those which have appeared in reputable peer reviewed journals) suggests the world might look like over the next century with variable amounts of warming from pre0industrial temperatures. As title of the book suggests, Lynas looks as what is likely to happen with 1 degree of warming, 2 degrees and so on.

Overall, the book is well researched and written, condensing a vast amount of scientific literature into 275 pages with clear references to the original material Lynas has cited. The prose is generally very straightforward, and consequently this is a book which anyone can pick up and read, which I’m sure was Lynas’s intention: seeking to present a simple but generally accurate picture of what science says a warming world will probably be like, and some of the reasons why this is likely to be enormously detrimental to most forms of human and non-human life on Earth.

While Lynas does mention the potential positives of a mildly warming world such as increased growing seasons and crop production in Russia, the Ukraine and Canada, these are heavily outweighed by rising probabilities of drought, water shortages (largely from glaciers melting away), floods, mass crop failures, loss of biodiversity and potential social and ecological collapses. Lynas does a good job in this respect of respecting regional differences, but connecting these regions into a broader global picture.

Particularly frightening are the predicted prospects of a world more than two degrees warmer than the pre-industrial global mean, as not only are the effects of such climactic change going to be more severe, but there exists a reasonable chance that once warming reaches this oft-discussed tipping point that natural positive feedback loops kick in which alter the global climate so as to reach the kind of steady-state seen in other global extinction events, a six degree rise in temperature. Lynas does a very good job in explicating how some of these effects may arise, and in spelling out the kind of drastic changes they would entail for the planet’s climate.

While generally I think the book has been well though out and written, there were a few bits of linguistic sloppiness which frustrated me. Describing a world which is six degrees warmer than 150 years ago as ‘the ultimate apocalypse’ merely gives ammunition to those who seek to decry Lynas as a false prophet of global doom. If the apocalypse is the end of the world what exactly the ultimate apocalypse? The sun going supernova? The Galaxy collapsing into a black hole? No… a similar amount of warming to other mass extinction events such as the Permian. Six degrees of warming may well see the extinction of the human species (as Lynas states) but this is very different from it being the ultimate apocalypse, and this kind of exaggerated statement is the only thing that really stops me from saying that this is a book that everyone should read. Which is a shame, because most of it isn’t alarmist nonsense, but a very clear and well written summary of the scientific evidence surrounding our probable future climate.

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Having mounted a public relations campaign in an attampt to restore the image of the met after the G20 debacle, the police have decided to codename their operation for this year’s Climate Camp Operation Bentham.

The operation’s moniker is a reference to the English social theorist and philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Bentham’s most frequently used concept is that of the panopticon.  The panopticon is essentially a prison where the inmates are constantly aware that they may be under surveillance but cannot know whether anyone is actually watching. Consequently they are forced to act as though they are constantly being surveyed and so internalise the process of surveillance .

The concept of the panopticon was utilised by French theorist Michel Foucault as a metaphor for modern ‘disciplinary socities.’ With the police using badge sized cameras to record activists alongside the report that all campers are to be photographed by the police, we shall wait and see whether the police tactics do indeed revolve around creating an Orwellian situation of self-censoring activists

Alternatively, if the Police do adopt a far more relaxed and less confrontational attitude towards Climate Camp, it will hopefully mean that the huge amount of media attention generated by the camp will actually focus on the issues the camp campaigns around, the workshops meetings and debates which happen at the camp, the array of sustainable technologies used by the camp, the consensus based direct democracy practiced by the camp, all of which has been sadly lacking in the coverage of Climate Camps at Kingsnorth and the G20.

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