A Message from Cockermouth to Copenhagen

Dear, oh dear. The issue of the CRU hack is simply not going to go away.

BBC Radio 4 gave some of its Today programme airtime to Nigel Lawson this morning. It’s not very clear to the casual listener exactly what Lawson’s position is, since he seemed to claim he wasn’t denying the science, just the policy, perhaps in a similar fashion to Bjorn Lomborg. But (it seemed to me whilst having breakfast) Lawson then went on to question the science.

Annoyingly, Lawson, an experienced politician (though disastrous economic policy-maker – stoking back in the 1980s the sort of boom-bust his party, the Tories are ironically criticising Labour for – so his track record doesn’t suggest a lot of faith should be put in his judgement of complex issues) and therefore used to media appearances, came across rather better than the scientist (whose name I didn’t catch) up against him.

I picked up a couple of points:

1. 1998 still warmest year

Lawson kept insisting it hasn’t warmed since 1998.

The problem here is that the scientists have picked the wrong weapon for the duel. The average surface temperature is highly variable. It varies by much more than the average annual temperature increase, so is bound to vary erratically over relatively short time periods.

The point is that the ocean will take many centuries – possibly millennia – to completely warm up. It only takes a larger than average amount (or strictly area) of cold water coming to the surface one year to reduce the average surface temperature of the planet compared to the previous year.

But the ocean gains heat (and ice melts) every year that the planet is out of thermal equilibrium (radiating less heat away than it receives from the Sun, because GHGs capture the energy). Perhaps the scientists should develop tools for measuring the total heat gain of the planet – or at least the oceans – rather than the average surface temperature. They could then tell us how many PWh (maybe the next up EWh, exawatt hours) we’ve gained each year.

But what really gets me is how much the scientists downplay another major prediction of their theory – that there will be more extreme weather. The rhetoric they use is bizarre. Normally you hear (and Hilary Benn the UK Government Minister said this sort of thing on Sunday) something along the lines of “you can’t attribute a single event to climate change” and “this is the sort of thing we can expect more of in future”.

I’d like to make a philosophical point here. I’d like to dispense with this ridiculous “can’t attribute a single event to climate change” business. Because you can’t not attribute it to climate change either! We do not have the luxury of what scientists would call a “control”. We have no other planet where we haven’t put GHGs into the atmosphere. When someone says “you can’t attribute a single event to climate change” people hear “it might have happened anyway”. No, it might not have happened anyway, because there is no “anyway”.

What I really don’t understand is why the scientists don’t make more of events that confirm their theory. Because that’s how science progresses. The prediction is “there will be more extreme weather events, such as flooding”. In the UK this week we’ve had such an extreme event. We’ve had the heaviest rainfall ever experienced in 24 hours.

Let’s just consider how big a record this is. The UK has been recording weather for a long time – centuries. And in all that time there’s never been as much rain in a 24 hour period. In fact, I’ve heard the previous record – the Martinstown Deluge of 1955 – doubted because of its implausibility!

If it was me I’d be crowing. The theory predicted this sort of thing. The Cockermouth event is strong support for global warming.

Consider other complex systems, the financial markets, say. You might hear predictions along the lines of “continued loose monetary policy will lead to further rises in the price of gold”. When the gold price rises do you think those who predicted it um and ah about how “it might have happened anyway”? You bet you don’t.

2. Datasets not in the public domain

Another point came out of the discussion on Today this morning. If I gathered correctly what was being said, the point was that the hacked emails included cases of data being wiped. And apparently it turns out this is because some of those who supplied the data considered it to be a valuable asset (in fact, it presumably is a valuable asset in that it can be sold). This is unacceptable.

It’s a fundamental tenet that scientific findings must be reproducible. And if the finding is an analysis of certain data, then others are unable to reproduce the findings. Perhaps the Copenhagen participants should spend a little of the $bns they’re throwing at the problem on paying data owners (meteorological offices) to put their data in the public domain. Scientific conclusions shouldn’t have to rely on the integrity of those with privileged access to measurements!

Part of the problem is the science seems so arcane to the general public. It needn’t be. We can all look at weather records and perhaps should be encouraged to do so.

You can, for example, download various historical records from the UK Met Office website and do your own analysis. Basically anyone can put together this sort of thing, from Joe Romm’s site.

My irritation should not, I suppose, be with “the scientists”. I know that’s what I’ve written. But it’s an oversimplification. The problem is partly the way science works. Detailed work is rewarded much more highly, in general, than high level explanation. We need more generalists who can bridge the gap between the nitty-gritty science and the public.

Here, again from Joe Romm’s blog is how the issue should be presented. K.I.S.S. Keep it simple, stupid.