An odd story about research into ‘climate change’

A correspondent sent me the following tale, which is trivial in itself, but astonishing in its implications. I’m summarising it, but you can read it all here.

One of the intellectual thorns in the side of the IPCC and the whole business of ‘combatting global warming’ has been the insistence on the part of the orthodox that climate change is caused by human activity, mostly through burning fossil fuels, making cement and clearing land. Indeed so powerful is this conviction that it is hard for a sceptic not to conclude that it is the burning of fossils fuels, not climate change, that is their real target. One is reminded of the strong disapproval by Presbyterians of sex, on the ground that it leads to dancing.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change twenty years ago defined ‘climate change’ as ‘a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods’. As I’ve said before, this seems to me to be a perversion of language, but even so you would think that even in this definition there is some obligation on anyone interested in doing research in this area to consider ‘natural climate variability’. How can we distinguish the one from the other? Surely that is a legitimate research question.

In fact, there hasn’t been much research of this kind. The standard orthodox line, which you can see in the various IPCC Reports, is that when scientists have accounted for all the natural variability they can find, what is left in ‘climate change’ must be the work of human activity. As time has passed, this argument from ignorance, which to me is little different from saying that it must have been witches that caused the Little Ice Age, has become less and less plausible, in particular because of the continuing pause in global warming. The longer it continues the more powerful natural variability must be, even if we don’t know what is causing it. (Some sceptics would say that perhaps the role of carbon dioxide has been greatly exaggerated, but that is akin to blasphemy, and I shan’t discuss it further here.)

Now comes the story. In the American State of Nebraska, the legislature has called ‘for a wide-ranging study of “cyclical” climate change. Funded by the state, the $44,000 effort was to be limited to natural causes – not additional speculation about manmade effects. Amazingly, University of Nebraska scientists are not just refusing to participate in the study, unless it includes human influences. One climatologist at the university’s National Drought Mitigation Center actually said he would not be comfortable circulating a study proposal or asking other scientists to participate in it; in fact, he “would not send it out” to anyone. The director of the High Plains Climate Center sniffed, “If it’s only natural causes, we would not be interested.”’

You can only regard this as bizarre. Yes, $44,000 is not a lot of money for a wide-ranging study of anything much, but it is a start, especially since the last finding of any research report is that more funding is needed to explore new and exciting aspects of the problem. The tale continues:

‘None of these Nebraska scientists seems reluctant to accept far larger sums for “research” that focuses solely on human causes; nor do professors at Penn State, Virginia, George Mason or other academic or research institutions. They’re likewise not shy about connecting “dangerous manmade global warming” to dwindling frog populations, shrinking Italian pasta supplies, clownfish getting lost, cockroaches migrating, and scores of other remote to ridiculous assertions – if the claims bring in research grants.’

One has to state again, as though to a genuinely dim student, that you can’t simply talk about the effect of human activity on climate without distinguishing it from natural causes of climate variability — those that we know must exist, because we know that there have been both very cold and much warmer periods in human history, and they can’t easily be associated, if at all, with human activity. And there is now the pesky pause of 16 years, going on 17.

As I said above, it is a bizarre position to take, that you would not want to do research work for which there is money, unless it has human activity in it. The authors of the article suggest that this is political correctness gone mad, and I can’t see anything to explain it, unless the researchers though the amount of money was trifling. On the other hand, I’ve never found any researcher, here or overseas, who would have thought that $44,000 was exactly trifling. One accepts it gratefully, supplies an interim report, and asks for more.

Now the researchers say that they don’t want to undertake work from which human activity is excluded, which is fair enough. But any halfway ambitious applicant for money should be able to design a research project in half an hour that would look at ‘cyclical patterns’, and indirectly distinguish them from the effects of human activity. They might actually find out something, too, though I doubt that the $44k will go very far.


Join the discussion 13 Comments

  • John Gardner says:

    Hi Don,

    It gets worse – I recently saw an article about this which quoted an academic from the University of Nebraska justifying their rejection of the funding by saying that ‘cycles were not scientific’. I was absolutely gobsmacked. How are we ever going to get back to real science, if such expressions of this abysmal level of anti-science at major universities are tolerated? What will it take for this collective madness to be expurgated, and will it happen in my lifetime? I’m an atheist, but God help us.

  • John Gardner says:

    By the way, Don, I started seriously digging into the science behind “climate change” after typing “sunspots” into the Australian Bureau of Meteorology website several years ago, and got a reponse like “the BOM does not study the effect of sunspots on climate…”. Again I was gobsmacked, having a practical knowledge of radio wave propagation (which as a fact is highly affected by sunspot activity), and already read sufficently about climatology to know that there was plenty of evidence of a strong correlation between sunspot activity and global climate going back thousands of years. How do they get away with this scientific chicanery, and for how much longer will they? And who will hold them to account?

  • Peter whittaker says:

    Peter Whittaker
    The most obvious gap is that the temperature gain is multiplied from 1.1 degrees to a great deal more by the watercycle that cools the tropics.

    • Don Aitkin says:


      It might be more circumspect to write ‘the temperature gain is thought to be multiplied…’ In fact, the IPCC puts the range as from 1.5 degrees to 4.5 degrees C. Most recent estimates seem to be at about 1.5 degrees C, which is not ‘a great deal more’. But no one has actually measured ‘climate sensitivity’, a concept that has its own conceptual problems.

  • David says:

    You claim
    “The standard orthodox line, which you can see in the various IPCC Reports, is that when scientists have accounted for all the natural variability they can find, what is left in ‘climate change’ must be the work of human activity.”
    Cant agree! The whole AWG argument is centred on establishing a link between CO2 and temperature. Show me a link to IPCC report that says humans are responsible for global warming without also some link to the increase in CO2.
    Your argument is beyond silly!

    • Don Aitkin says:

      You may be indulging in irony … but what you say and what I say are essentially the same.

      • David says:

        You not going to get out of that easily! We don’t agree all!

        Show me where you think “[t]he standard orthodox line, …” airily attributes residual global warming to human activity, “after they have accounted for all the natural variability” without identifying a causal mechanism. i.e. the rise in CO2. You made the statement. Back
        it up!!

        • David says:

          So can I take you failure to respond, as an admission that you were unable support your claim?

          • Don Aitkin says:

            No, just busy. I’ll do my best to answer tonight — I don’t have an instant link to everything.

          • Don Aitkin says:

            Later: I think that I simply took for granted something whose absence you noted.

            Let me rephrase, or let Wikipedia do it for me: ‘Computer-based climate models are unable to
            replicate the observed warming unless human greenhouse gas emissions are
            included.’ (from the entry on Attribution of Warming. That is, yes, there is a theory that CO2 causes warming, and it must be true because natural variability alone cannot explain the warming that has occurred, unless we introduce the warming caused by human activities of various kinds.

            I didn’t think that it was necessary to spell this out, and I’m sorry that my not doing so caused your ire. ‘Human activity’ was my shorthand for carbon dioxide emissions.

            If this is not what you meant then I will need further help. Chapter 10 of AR5 deals with natural variability, but the underlying assumption there is that everything that will even be know about n.v. is now known. Not only is that unlikely, to say the least, but the failure of av. gl. temp to rise over the last 17 years while there has been the same steady increase in CO2 that had occurred over the previous 17 years suggests that in fact we still don’t know a lot about natural variability — and that it may well be the case that the contribution of CO2 to temperature has been over-valued.

          • David says:

            Thank you Don
            This clarification now makes perfect sense to me.

  • David says:

    The fact that AGW is also referred to as “Greenhouse effect” shows that a data generating process has been defined and they don’t just attribute residual warming to human activity.
    What you said was completely slanderous!

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