How to talk to Government about ‘climate change’

I have mentioned Judith Curry and her website Climate etc many times, and I am deeply impressed both with what she does there, and with her capacity to represent her perspective on ‘climate change’ in the public arena and especially to government. She is a senior and well-published scientist in the climate area, and you can read about her, and about her work, here. Her most recent foray in the public domain I’ll come to in a moment.

But first I want to say something about the kind of arena that she encounters in the USA. There, it is fair to say, ‘climate change’ is something that has a sharp partisan divide. Serious Republicans generally think that ‘catastrophic’ anthropogenic  global warming (CAGW) is just about a hoax, or at the very least hopelessly exaggerated. Serious Democrats take the opposite view, from the President down. Most Americans, according to Gallup, don’t think the issue is important at all.

And because Congress has lots of committees, and the committees  like to call witnesses, there have been a number of occasions when scientists of a sceptical bent have been asked to give evidence. That could happen here, too, but our committee system is different, and it is preoccupied with what the current Government is doing, or not doing. And our committees rarely call for witnesses outside government to give testimony. You would usually need a Royal Commission, like the one on the abuse of children, to provide such an opportunity. Oh, and our parties, at least publicly, agree that ‘climate change’ is a problem; they just differ about what should be done to ‘fix’ it.

So I look at what Professor Curry is able to do in the USA with envy as well as respect. A little while ago she was asked to take part in a discussion on ‘climate change’ organised by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (those who regulate the providers of water, electricity, transportation and the like for local governments), and her counterpart was someone representing the orthodox side. Her testimony is really worth reading in full, and with the powerpoint overheads she used. You can see it all here. I think it is a compelling argument for thoughtful consideration of the costs and benefits of what governments are doing. There is no hysteria, denunciation or over-egging.

She began like this.

In my brief opening remarks, I’m going to focus on areas of uncertainty, disagreement, and confusion in the debate about climate change.

Confusion. Climate science is complicated and can be confusing. But the confusion is exacerbated by politicization of the science and also misleading communication by the media. The recent Sense of the Senate Resolution illustrates the problem.

“Climate change is real and not a hoax” (98-1)
“Climate change is real; and human activity significantly contributes to climate change.” (50-49)
The Senate resolutions highlight the differences and confusion between the scientific versus the political definitions of climate change. The scientific definition states that climate change can be due to natural processes OR persistent human caused changes. The political definition is that climate change is caused by humans. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change established the political definition in the 1990s.

The political definition effectively defines naturally caused climate change out of existence. However, natural climate change versus human caused climate change is at the heart of the scientific debate. My remarks today will be directed at pointing out the importance of natural climate variability.

 So, what do climate scientists agree on? Scientists agree that

 *Surface temperatures have increased since 1880
 *Humans are adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere
 *Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have a warming effect on the planet.

However there is considerable disagreement about the most consequential issues:

 *Whether the warming since 1950 has been dominated by human causes
 *How much the planet will warm in the 21st century
 *Whether warming is ‘dangerous’
 *And whether we can actually do anything to prevent climate change.

Why do scientists disagree? There are a number of reasons:

 *Insufficient observational evidence
 *Disagreement about the value of different types of evidence
 *Disagreement about the appropriate logical framework for linking and assessing the evidence
 *Assessments of areas of ambiguity & ignorance.

And finally, the politicization of the science can torque the science in politically desired directions. Uncertainty and disagreement drive scientific progress. However, when a scientific issue becomes politicized, and scientists attempt to speak consensus to power, then a scientific discussion of uncertainties is regarded as an undesirable political act.

If only there were a public arena in Australia where this straightforward and eminently supportable case could be put! There isn’t one, and apart from a Melbourne invited gathering at which I spoke (as did Professor Karoly and others) I can’t immediately recall any such public occasion.

Here’s a bit more of Professor Curry.

The politicization of climate science, and effectively defining natural climate variability out of the public dialogue, has had a very unfortunate impact on the progress of climate science. Have you heard the story about the drunk searching for his lost keys under a streetlight, since that is the only place where he can see anything? Well something similar has been happening with climate science. You find what you shine a light on.

Motivated by the UN Framework Convention and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and government funding, climate scientists have been focusing primarily on greenhouse gases and to a lesser extent other anthropogenic factors. Other factors important for understanding climate variability have been relatively neglected, I have highlighted long-term ocean oscillations and solar indirect effects, since I think that these are potentially very important on decadal to century timescales…

So what is causing the warming? The recent IPCC AR5 concluded: It is extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by [humans]. The best estimate of the human induced contribution is similar to the observed warming over this period. The IPCC does NOT have a consistent or convincing explanation for the large warming between 1910 and 1940, the cooling between 1940 and 1975, and the flat temperatures in the 21st century. Until the IPCC is able to explain these variations, I find their high confidence that humans have caused virtually all of the warming since 1950 to be unconvincing.

This is reasoned, sensible stuff, and I commend her whole post to readers. If you disagree, you have to be able to show where she is  wrong. No one has been able to do so. What her orthodox critics do is to point to something else, rather than defend their position against her critique.

Given her prominence, and the way the American political system works, it is not surprising that she, along with a few other sceptical scientists, is now the subject of what can fairly been described as a smear campaign. That is perhaps the cost of the more open political system in the USA, and I’ll make that the subject of my next essay.

Join the discussion 24 Comments

  • Alan Gould says:

    While having heard her name on several occasions, this is the first time I have encountered her actual views cited, and am heartened by her good nerve, good sense, and above all, fair sense. More than anything in this AGW discourse we are looking for the fairness of approach, are we not? What impedes fair discourse in Oz, I wonder? Habits from the dank convict dormitories that discouraged forthrightness and encouraged gang-allegiance, and a wariness of standing out?

    • dlb says:

      I would have thought our convict and possibly Irish past was what gave us the contempt for authority which we are famous / infamous. There was a warmist commenter on Judy’s blog who unfavourably described sceptic commenters from Australia in this way.
      But there has always been the religious in Australia and particularly within the ruling classes. Todays new establishment may not profess to a belief in God but they are certainly religious as they now worship the authority of the priests in white coats.

  • David says:

    “Other factors important for understanding climate variability have been relatively neglected, I have highlighted long-term ocean oscillations and solar indirect effects, since I think that these are potentially very important on decadal to century timescales…

    Don is there any chance you might grace us with a coherent explanation of what “solar indirect effects” are. Unfortunately Google Scholar indicates that
    Professor Curry is yet to publish, anything, on this “potentially very
    important” climatic process. Too busy.

    I accept that your blog is data free, so I don’t expect you to produce any
    testable evidence. “Generalists” are not required to do that, anyway. But could
    you at least provide you readers with a sense of “the vibe”.

    • JMO says:

      David, perhaps I can help. There is a lot more to the SUn than its average 11-year cycles (Schwabe cycle), it has other longer term cycles which we are only beginning to understand.

      We have had the most active sun (since 400 years of observation) from 1948 onwards (strong Schwabe maxima cycles numbers 18-23), cycle 24 maximum has been much weaker (its on the way down now) and solar phycists think cycle 25 maxima will be next to nothing. Also there is the Hale 22-year cycle -double the 11-year cycle (the Sun swaps its north/south magnetic poles to south/north and back again).

      There are other longer cycles, the Gleissberg 87-year cycle, the Suess/de Vries 210 -year cycle, The Eddy 1000-year cycle and even the Hallstatt 2300 year cycle. Each cycle has up to a 15% fluctuation range (or more for the Gleissberg).

      The first two should reach their minima betwen 2020 to 2040. Say 2035 we could have a Dalton minimum (1790 -1830). This will cause noticeable global cooling (around 0.4 -0.6 C) but (thank goodness) we have pumped a lot more CO2 in the air since the Industrial Revolution which conceivably would increase to 450 ppm offsetting the cooling by around 0.2 to 0.3 C (assuming climate sensitivity of 1 -1.5 C per doubling CO2).

      But it’s the longer cycles and their effect on Earth’s exposure to cosmic radiation which are the unknowns. Looking at the Eddy cycle, we are coming to the end of the Modern Maxima, which resulted in warming from around 1850 and certainly in the second half of the 20th century.

      These warming periods have been happening about every 1000 years, the Minoan (1000BC -very warm), the Roman (100 AD) -quite warm) and the Medieval (1100AD -warm), all of which were warmer than the Modern warm period (1880 -2020?). This seems to suggest the Sun has a strong influence on global warming and cooling.

      I could go on, but I am a little presed for time as I am about to leave the country for 2 months in 2 days time. I hope to see the Aurora Borealis, in Iceland as well as seeing the total solar eclipse on March 20. This could be my one and only chance to see the aurora before the Sun starts shutting down around about 2017. Also 2016 is the last year aurora cruises are operating..

      • David says:

        Enjoy your holiday. 🙂

        • JMO says:

          Thank you David, my wife and I stopped over in Hawaii and then Seattle, then flew to Iceland. We saw the northern lights 3 times and the solar eclipse at 40000 ft in a Boeing 757 well north of the Faeroe Is-chasing the moon’s shadow extending totality from 2m36s to 3m47s. We saw a number of huge prominences and the corona – quite a lot of solar activity- it just hung there 18 degrees above the horizon. Through my 15×70 binos it had 3D effect especially above the visible Earth’s curvature and the moons shadow beaming from space onto Earth’s overcast surface. We also visited Iceland (all under snow), Normandy WW2 Normandy beaches,Bayou tapestry (Halley’s comet is about 32 metres into the tapestry – it is 70 metres long), Mont St Michelle and WW1 battle sights and graves, Waterloo, my dad’s WW2 airfield and village where he was billed near Amiens in northern France (during the battle of France in May 1940) and found the very place he was shot down (in a Blenheim) and captured becoming a POW for the rest of the war. We toured through Central Europe, visited Gallipoli and Troy and also went up the worlds tallest building,Burg Kali-fa. in Dubaii. We journeyed around the world in 56 days.

      • David says:


        I have thought about your post a little more. And credit
        where credit is due!

        At least you have intellectual courage to nominate exactly which physical process you think are responsible for moderating global warming. No vague claim of “natural variability” or a “possible unknown unknown” to support your position, so well done!

        • Peter Kemmis says:

          You could add Fritz Vahrenholt’s “The Neglected Sun” to add to your reading list. As well, you might care to examine some of Svensmark’s work.
          One of my daughters some years ago gave me a T-shirt, imprinted with an interesting phrase. The garment is now faded and getting a bit tatty, but whenever I reach for it in the drawer, it still brings a warm smile to my face:
          “Knowledge speaks. Wisdom listens.”

  • David says:

    Seriously Don, check this Curry quote out.

    “The absence of convincing attribution of periods other than 1976-present to
    anthropogenic forcing leaves natural climate variability as the cause – some
    combination of solar (including solar indirect effects), uncertain volcanic
    forcing, natural internal (intrinsic variability) and possible unknown unknowns.”

    I would like to nominate this as the most piss-poor counter argument to AGW I have ever read. Nothing measurable, of course!

    • dlb says:

      At least she came up with generalisations, unlike the piss-poor climate models whose definitive output have been extremely embarrassing.

      • David says:

        Seriously how can you attribute causation to a “possible unknown unknown”

        “whose definitive output have been extremely embarrassing.”

        Well not for the period “1976-present”, apparently.

  • aert driessen says:

    Don, another good read — thank you. I have a few comments. You mention the politicization of climate science but you offer no insights as to who is doing this or what their motives might be. I see a strong symbiotic relationship between ‘Left’ politicians and tax-funded scientists. Left politicians want a mechanism to redistribute wealth. What better than a tax on CO2, more so if that same tax saves them from the dangers of AGW. Government-funded scientists want job security so what better than feeding these politicians with the arguments that justify such political action? How do you fight or counter dishonesty? Then you have the dishonesty exposed by the ‘Climategate’ emails; I won’t even go there. Climate change provides such an opportunity on a global scale, much better than a national scale; think UN and its IPCC, even Agenda 21. Al Gore conned the world with his movie ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ which I did not see. He saw a correlation (a weak one at that) between rising CO2 levels and global mean temperature and invalidly invoked causation. He reinforced his argument by fraudulently shifting his CO2 line slightly to the left so as to be slightly in front of the temperature line, thus ‘proving’ that CO2 caused the warming. When you point out that there is real, solid evidence in ice cores that warming precedes rises in CO2, peoples’ eyes glaze over. How do you counter that, considering that this should be obvious if you consider that CO2 is more soluble in cold water than warm water and the oceans hold some 15 times more CO2 that the atmosphere. This should make it obvious that oceans that warm for whatever reason (but bound to be natural), release CO2 to atmosphere. This is school science. How do you explain that? Mars has an atmosphere of 95% or so CO2 (yes, % not ppm). I don’t see anything untoward happening to those robotic vehicles. Indeed, temperatures plummet to minus 100 deg C (or something like that) when the sun goes down there.
    Another thing. Climate change is regional (relative, just as sea level is because continents move up and down just like sea levels do); for example, deserts form in rain shadows caused by the rise of mountain chains that directly and indirectly force change on atmospheric and ocean circulation patterns. But the rise of the Andes had no effect on climate in North Africa; the Himalayas did that. One of my favourite hypothesis of climate change is Henrik Svensmark’s, very elegantly told in his book ‘The Chilling Stars’. His hypothesis accounts for climate change over all scales — millions of years, hundreds of millions of years, even thousands of millions of years. Well worth a read. I’ve run out of time to explain it now other than to say it hinges on influxes of cosmic radiation which affect cloud formation, and such cosmic ray influxes are affected by what our sun does because our sun sprays us with its own electromagnetic radiation (solar wind) which acts as a shield (effective or less effective depending on solar activity) from the cosmic radiation. The orthodox warmists will change their mind when real events replace palaeo evidence and earth freezes over which, considering recent weather events in the northern hemisphere, may already have started. The interglacial that we are in is, statistically at least, due to end. Keep up the good fight.

  • Doug Hurst says:

    Some time back a confessed cynic noted that AGW is the ultimate Green dream – an excuse to tax the air and blame the industrial world. Maybe not so cynical?

    More seriously, we need more like Judith Curry – informed, balanced and clearly not about to be bullied.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Thanks for the link. Yes, my next essay is on this subject.

    • kvd says:

      Mick it’s a reasonable thing to ask for such details from any scientist. I hope, and expect, any answers provided will prove JC’s impartiality. But to be offended by the asking is not how to respond.

      I was taken by the following comment from one of her readers buried deep in the “Heresy and the creation of monsters” post way back in October 2010:

      Certain people have become symbolic in this debate and its important for
      each side to turn key figures into memes. […..] They need to stick you into a box :heretic or
      dupe. Nothing does the trick like a false dilemma

      I think it was always thus, but more importantly – do we now continue to spend time on endless character attack, or do we attempt to understand the emerging science?

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    I think I’ve been reading your blog for well over a year. I consider your position has moved from being a “climate agnostic” to that of a “climate sceptic” over that time.
    I wonder how long it will take Judith Curry to move from a similar agnosticism to outright scepticism.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      My position is that I await good data and good argument that convince me that global warming is a real threat to humanity. So far I have not seen it and I’ve been searching for ten years now — more than ten years. That makes me an agnostic.

      I am a sceptic in that carbon taxes, emissions trading schemes, RETs, subsidies for alternative energy and the like can, in my judgment, do nothing of any significance to affect global temperature, which is plain with simple arithmetic.

      But yes, after ten years or so, I would have expected some good data and argument by now. But what I do see, which is so frustrating, is more and more wagons circling the original belief.

      That academies and the like can’t see how damaging this is for organised science does disturb me.

  • Mark M says:

    Mann is quite right that the PDO/AMO may likely be the cause of the hiatus, but by accepting this possibility he unfortunately drives a coach and horses through the AR5 attribution analysis described in chapter 10.

    This is because the probability analysis used there depends on natural variability being precisely zero since 1951.

  • Malcolm Miller says:

    There are not many things that never change, and ‘climate’ is NOT one of them……

  • giordano bruno says:

    Hi all. Problem of Australia is that all the politicians are not exactly that sharp in science but all very smart, and nobody wants an independent, efficient scientific process to assess the effect ts of climate change. Labour and greens are masters in supporting their views and preventing the opponents to express themselves. The liberals simply do not have a clue. Hunt & Turnbull both believe the science of global warming is settled. Abbot is only interested in supporting the carbon industry. In case of Judith curry, the republican congressmen expressed themselves against the witch hunting by the democrats defending the free scientific debate. In Australia no politician has open the mouth to support the freedom of science.

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