If 2015 is the hottest year since whenever, what will that mean?

There is general acceptance among weather people that we are going to have an el Nino summer in our country. More generally, the el Nino is expected to persist until March/April. This will be good for California and Arizona, which are likely to get heavy rain, and have had drought conditions over the past few years dominated by la Nina conditions, meaning cooler and wetter for us in SE Australia.

Our summer is likely to be hot and dry. Since our dams are pretty full (Sydney’s water storage is at 98 per cent), this is unlikely to be a problem, at least for city-dwellers, unless the el Nino runs into a second year, which it might, though it has been about, in preparation, for much of this year. Lots of people, who should know better, are hoping for an el Nino, because it might signal the end of ‘the pause’ — the lack of significant warming for a decade or much more, according to which dataset you are looking at. Of course, since the el Nino is not connected to carbon dioxide accumulations, the outcome should be seen as yet another example of natural variations which affect temperature, rather than a sign that ‘global warming has started again!’

William Briggs, a fine statistician who writes good things about statistical inference on his website, has pondered on this one too. He starts with a puzzle. There are two stories floating around about the state of the earth’s atmosphere. Both are believed true by government-funded scientists and the environmentally minded. The situation is curious because the stories don’t mesh. Yet, as I said, both are believed. Worse, neither is true. Story number one is that this year will be the hottest ever. And number two is that the reason it is not hot is because natural variation has masked or stalled man-caused global warming.

Two questions follow, for a reasonable person. How can people believe each of these two ‘divergent contentions’? And why are they false? Briggs answers the first by arguing that climatology has become a branch of politics …. any statement which supports globe warming is likely to be touted by government supporters, even mutually incompatible statements.

Briggs feels that he too is one of the people targeted by the climate scientists suggesting that the RICO Act be used against them. He is properly offended: In other words, arguments put forward by independent scientists and organisations that do not support the government’s line cannot be considered science, but should instead by classified as criminal acts.

Why will 2015 not be the hottest ever, or on record? Briggs offers some evidence from the geologic record that will be familiar to anyone who has done some reading in this area — for example, this graph.


Yes, it’s a long, long record, and it’s all based on proxies (but then, thermometers provide  proxies too). On the face of it, the earth has generally been warmer than it is now. If you go back only a million or so years, the earth has been in  cold global temperatures (‘ice ages’) for most of that period, much colder than now. Cold is not good for life, which is why we use deep freezes to store food. And the relationship between temperature and carbon dioxide over the long haul is simply equivocal, as the next graph shows.












These graphs are usually dismissed or ignored, on the ground that we are really interested in the contemporary world. Or that there is uncertainty in the data. And there is. But there is uncertainty in all temperature data, wherever they come from. There are two principal sources of uncertainty, measurement error and statistical error, and virtually no one ever points them out on their graphs (these ones too). Briggs  comments — The end result is to make temperature guesses appear smooth and uncomplicated, which is an illusion. That illusion makes it easier for (actually measured) temperatures in modern times to appear more variable. And that makes it easier to appear that we are hotter now, even if we’re not. 

The orthodox will object that these great shifts measured in millions of years don’t display ‘climate’, which is presently defined as the average of weather, and weather is what we have had for thirty years. These are simply conventional definitions, however, and have no ‘scientific’ status, other than their common use. If we go by the satellite temperature record, which starts in 1979, it would be relatively easy for there to be a record, if this year’s el Nino is like the one in 1998. Look at this graph, which shows both the satellite measurements:


But go up to the two top graphs, and you’ll see that this 36-year period is in geological terms a cool time, and such a record would mean nothing.

The ‘pause’. Briggs doesn’t like the term, because it implies a resumption of warming, from whatever cause. For him, el Ninos are an effect of climate, or an example, or an observation, not a cause of anything, even hot and dry here, which is simply part of el Nino — another observation. So to blame el Ninos for preventing the true outcome of more CO2 in the atmosphere is almost nutty. People who put forward this view use the absence of predicted increases as proof the increases were really there, but in masked or modified form! To them, the repeated, consistent and egregiously mistaken predictions made by climate models are true no matter what because [anthropogenic] global warming is true no matter what

This essay is easy to read and understand, and he is helpful on the use of parameters in global circulation models. I’ll let Professor Briggs have the last word:

The lesson to be learned from this is that the climate is never constant; it always has changed and always will. Stopping climate change is a human impossibility

Footnote: After I had written this piece I discovered a lengthy and useful essay on the quality of temperature data at http://wattsupwiththat.com/2015/09/24/summary-of-ghcn-adjustment-model-effects-on-temperature-data/

Along with the scientists wanting others who disagree with them to be investigated as though they were racketeers, and David Attenborough’s suggestion that we spend even more money making renewable energy affordable, comes a law professor seeking to have the International Court of Justice actually rule on climate change, so the dissidents will finally be quashed. It’s a strange world we live in.

Oh, and Associated Press has decided that from now on its staff won’t use the word ‘denier’ or its close relatives. They are now to refer to such people as ‘climate change doubters’, and those of the opposite persuasion as ‘climate change proponents’. I think I’ll continue with the ‘orthodox’. The real ‘deniers’ to me are those who think that the science of climate is settled.

Join the discussion 10 Comments

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    Talk of the RICO Act to be brought against “climate change doubters” has led me to remember Senator Joseph McCarthy’s crusades against communism during the first half of the 1950s. Regardless of his initial intent, those crusades have given us a new term, “McCarthyism”. Its current Wikipedia definition is “the practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence. It also means the practice of making unfair allegations or using unfair investigative techniques, especially in order to restrict dissent o political criticism”.

    Such talk of applying the RICO Act against “doubters”, appears to be second cousin to McCarthyism.

    What a pretty pass has Western civilisation reached, that our doubting scientists should be put on trial for their scientific opinions! Mind you, assuming that we can keep the arraigned free of Star Chambers, there is a mountain of evidence one can bring to their defence, that would surely increase the numbers of doubters among the public at large, and perhaps even the media. That would be one way for the orthodox to shoot itself in the collective foot.

    Here is the Wikipedia entry on the RICO Act – worth taking a squiz:

    “The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly referred to as the RICO Act or simply RICO, is a United States federal law that provides for extended criminal penalties and a civil cause of action for acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal organization. The RICO Act focuses specifically on racketeering, and it allows the leaders of a syndicate to be tried for the crimes which they ordered others to do or assisted them in doing,
    closing a perceived loophole that allowed a person who instructed
    someone else to, for example, murder, to be exempt from the trial
    because he did not actually commit the crime personally.”

    So were you a legislator moving a private bill, say, to cease Federal subsidies for wind farms, we could not only have you arraigned, but Bob Carter, Don Aitkin, Jo Nova . . . oh dear, we could hardly fit them all in the dock, could we?

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    “a law professor seeking to have the International Court of Justice actually rule on climate change”

    What a great idea! There is absolutely no reason why the Laws of Physics should not be subject to High Court challenge. We found them, so surely we should be able to
    get rid of them.

  • David says:

    Don your argument is weak, as
    usual. You cherry pick two time series. The first is thirty five years of
    temperature data which run from 1979 to 2015. The second, is a little longer. This time
    series runs from the Precambrian period 4.6 billion years ago to the Holocene. From
    these data you cobble together a highly unconvincing argument against AGW. This
    is your worst effort yet, imo. 🙂

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Take it up with Briggs. His argument. It’s there for you to discuss sensibly. The so-called cherry picking is the entire set of data available from the satellites.

      • David says:

        “…the entire set of data available from the satellites” is of course a subset of temperature data available since the Industrial Revolution. As I said, cherry picking.

  • Neville says:

    The HAD 4 data shows just 0.8C warming since 1850. And the Lloyd study found an average temp deviation per century of about 1 C. That’s from ice cores at NH and SH over the last 80 centuries.
    Our modern warming also comes after the end of a minor ice age ( LIA). Big deal. Our slight modern warming is not unusual or unprecedented at all. In fact far from it.

  • Neville says:

    But surely anyone who thinks that climate doesn’t and hasn’t changed NATURALLY over millions of years must be a moron? Will they ever wake up?

  • Neville says:

    Interesting that Concordia Uni lists the top 20 countries responsible for temp increases since about 1800. USA tops the list at about 0.15C and OZ comes in at 19 with 0.006C of temp responsibility.

    The top 20 countries account for about 82% of warming over the last 200+ years. But according to the Lloyd study and common sense we could argue that most of that warming would be natural variability. Particularly when you start at one of the coldest periods for 10,000 years.

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