Scene from the flight between Bergen and Oslo. Photo: B L Bye
'He' worked at Cornell University after a long corporate life in the oil industry. A bit into the conversation we discovered that we both were astrophysicists; he had enjoyed discovering the first gamma ray bursts. We covered a wide range of topics on that 40 min. flight from Bergen to Oslo. We had said our good byes and safe journey's when he suddenly wanted to know my view on global warming. “What do you mean, believe?” I asked over the heads of the people struggling with getting their luggage down from the compartments.
The latest and perhaps most thorough review on the so-called Climategate was released yesterday. The Independent Climate Change Email Review lead by Sir Muir Russell concluded, like the two preceding reports, that there were no signs of misconduct or fraudulent behavior by the scientists involved in University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit - CRU's work.
First of all, to me Climategate is really no big deal or surprise. Why wouldn't the highly competitive climate in the science community or the combination of science and politics produce someone hacking into the 'enemies' computers looking for sensitive information? And why wouldn't that sensitive information of private character (until recently emails between cooperating colleagues were regarded as private) reveal human beings using less sophisticated language? I mean, I try to prepare my son (19) for his professional life by reminding him over and over again that his environment will remain being like a Kindergarten no matter where he'll be and whom he'll play with. The same social laws and displays of human strengths and weaknesses will be demonstrated. The only difference between children's Kindergartens and adult's Kindergartens is perhaps that adults are better at covering up their motives and actions, often through more sophisticated language. But not always, as can be seen in some of the hacked emails. You'll have to excuse me, but I cannot produce any kind of shock hearing or reading scientists curse. And honestly, I suspect those who claim to be shocked or repulsed by that are having hidden agendas. Like the sliest kid in the Kindergarten.
Open data access
After establishing that scientists are humans (still) acting in a highly competitive environment, I move on to more important issues related to Climategate. My interest in Climategate is related to data policy. The CRU gang was accused of holding back their data. In earlier articles Climategate - The Truth About Transparency and Climategate - To Share Or Not To Share, I argue that they cannot be held responsible for inaccessible data, as it was not in their powers to share. The Independent Climate Change Email Review support this view.
“On the allegation of withholding temperature data, we find that CRU was not in
a position to withhold access to such data or tamper with it."
While I went somewhat into details (see video above) on why CRU was not responsible for whatever data that remained inaccessible (I also pointed to the fact that CRU had made data accessible through a website that anyone could reach), The independent Muir Russell evaluation chose a much more creative way of communicating the same point. They simply went ahead and physically demonstrated that the information was there. That included showing that anyone with appropriate competence could easily reproduce program codes that also were asked for and claimed to be non-rightfully held back.
This brilliant communication stunt, kills two flies by one hit (as we say in Norway): first it shows that sufficient data is clearly already there openly available and accessible to anyone who would be interested in getting it. Why would you ask CRU scientists to do this work for you for free - under the Freedom of Information Act FoIA? Second, the stunt demonstrates that if you have the necessary knowledge to even have an opinion on CRU's work, you would be able to verify or falsify their work based on information CRU actually made available. Ridiculously easy. If you are not able to do this you are maybe not in a position to judge?
In the future, I hope that organizations like GEO succeed in speeding up the political process securing a wider production of Earth observation data that are openly accessible to all users and not restrained by national laws and regulations, as is too often the case today.Hockey sticks and tricks.
You don't need to be a scientists to know that climate is something that changes with time. I am talking about longterm climate change and not the present debated climate change. I'm referring to ancient ice ages and warmer periods. When we learn geography in school the formation of the local landscape is explained with reference to movements of ice-sheets that used to be there, or sea level that was 100reds of meters (go metric again) higher than today or other climate related explanations. Tangible proof of the former higher sea level can be found in my neck of the woods as there are plenty of marine fossils found at 300 meters height, tens of kilometers inland from the current coastlines. Variations in climate is layman knowledge, really.
The hockey stick graph has been attacked by those who deny that climate is changing. Or more precisely those who deny that the planet is getting warmer. The Independent Climate Change Emails Review report concludes that the CRU graph is misleading in that they have not described how they chose to represent their data. Note, that the data is not considered wrong, but the representation merely misleading.
The hacked emails contained statements like 'trick' and 'hide the decline' and I can understand that some might get confused by that, especially when taken out of context and presented in colored language. For scientists using a 'trick' is understood as intelligently or elegantly using math or algorithms. That is how the CRU group uses the term as well. The Independent Climate Change Emails Review's critique, as I read it, lies not in using tricks but in not being sufficiently clear as to what exactly they did to produce the graph (hockey stick). The review states:
"On the allegation that the references in a specific e-mail to a „trick‟ and to hide the decline‟ in respect of a 1999 WMO report figure show evidence of intent to paint a misleading picture, we find that, given its subsequent iconic significance (not least the use of a similar figure in the IPCC Third Assessment Report), the figure supplied for the WMO Report was misleading. We do not find that it is misleading to curtail reconstructions at some point per se, or to splice data, but we believe that both of these procedures should have been made plain – ideally in the figure but certainly clearly described in either the caption or the text."
Neither using a 'trick' nor 'hiding the decline' imply a proof there is no global warming. Global warming is shown in three independent studies, and actually also reproduced in this review report. I believe the CRU group wanted to illustrate that we actually have this warming and they wanted people to be warned and concerned with its implications. I have to admit that when I saw the hockey stick first I assumed the extreme slope was exaggerated to show the point. It did not make me believe the planet was getting colder, though!
What conclusion will they draw those who believe the hockey stick is incorrect? That the planet is cooling? Or that for the first time in the history of this planet, climate will not change one bit and remain the same for ever after? The first option should evoke actions to adapt to a new ice age, right? And the second, a stable climate would require no action at all. Inaction is also a decision. What grounds would such decisions be made on? Where can we find evidence that the planet miraculously have entered a stable climate phase never seen before?
Even if CRU may be guilty of producing a misleading graphical representation of scientific sound data, or are acting hostile and juvenile, it doesn't change the fact that our planet is warming.Science based Earth observations
This summer two major international Earth science meetings have taken place in Norway. The International Polar Year Oslo Science Conference gathered 2400 polar scientist for one extended week in Lillestrøm, a small town immediately outside Oslo. IPY has already resulted in a much better understanding of the polar regions and thus the Earth system as a whole. It's legacy is not yet complete as results from this intense focus will keep on coming.
One of the themes at the IPY conference was Space for polar science. A tremendous effort has been made by space agencies and institutions around the world providing us with a wealth of new satellite data from this strategic region. It is most definitely strategic for our understanding of climate change as these are the regions, including the Himalayas which sometimes is referred to as the third pole, that are particularly susceptible to global warming as well as human induced pollution.
One interesting topic is the melting of ice sheets, one if not the most important geophysical consequence of global warming. Greenland is covered by a humongous ice-sheet that we observe diminishes more rapidly than even anticipated. Melting ice means less mass, and this can be observed by satellites like GRACE.
The satellite observations lead us to the second big Earth science meeting in Norway; ESA's Living Planet Symposium in Bergen. Cryosat is one of the three Earth Explorers that has been successfully launched the last couple of years, securing great volumes of high quality sea-ice data from extended otherwise inaccessible areas. The Living Planet program with the rest of the Earth Explorers included will arm us with an incredible arsenal of Earth system observers. And that is just the European Space Agency ESA. I haven't even mentioned NASA and space agencies on other continents.
Common for the two meetings was the intelligent discourse between scientists with different views on various topics. Like, how much, fast and in what fashion is the ice melting, how is sea level variations spatially distributed etc.Believe in global warming?
My point is that scientists are in fact discussing global warming and climate change like any other scientific topic. They soberly evaluate different hypothesis, some favor one hypothesis over another and we have a regular scientific debate where not everybody agrees. It is no reason why the general public couldn't be well informed about this process. If we take the case of global warming, the scientific discussion is not about whether the planet is warming, but why and how. A big difference. That is why I asked “What do you mean, believe?” on the plane back from Bergen. There is no believe or disbelief when it comes to global warming. Satellites and other instruments are our eye witnesses. Solid documentation of that fact was presented at IPY OSC and ESA's Living Planet Symposium – and in many other forums.
Communicating climate change is difficult when matters of proven facts are disputed. The hacked emails show some of the despair over this blind-end discussion. If you add looking ahead and throw in hypothesis about how the planet will act in the future, things get even more complicated.Uncertainties
Climate models and earth observations are distinct in that the first is theoretical and the latter is actual data representing reality. Global warming is not a model, it is empirical data, observation of the Earth made over a period of time. Climate models are more like an educated crystal ball.
In a sense it is almost irrelevant if we had a warmer medieval period or a little ice-age within the last 1000 years or so. What is important is how we handle the current warming. Since the last two somewhat significant changes in climate took place, we have experienced an exponential population growth. Since we live on a finite planet with limited resources we are several orders of magnitude more exposed to lethal and sever economic consequences of climate change today than ever before. In this perspective it would be awfully nice to know what will happen next. But"Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future. "
Niels Bohr, Danish physicist.
The Independent Climate Change Email Review addresses the uncertainties that lies in climate change research and encourage scientific communities to communicate this point better in the future.
"Prophesy is a good line of business, but it is full of risks."
Mark Twain, American Writer
How about leaving Climategate behind us now, stop arguing over matters of facts like rising temperatures and instead focus on the uncertainties? Why not start to prepare our society
for a number of climate scenarios?
Interesting and relevant reading
Global warming independent estimates are made by:
Climatic Research Unit, University of East Anglia
The three inquiries:
1. Science Assessment Panel led by Lord Oxburgh pdf link
2. Science and Technology committee. Released 31st March 2010.
3. Independent Climate Change Emails Review. Released 7th July 2010
NASA Climate site:
Cool stuff about ice here at Science2.0 by Patrick Lockerby
Selection of BBC articles covering Climategate:
Climategate e-mails review condemns lack of openness. Martin Rosenbaum
Climate data: What's hidden. Richard Black
Harrabin's Notes: Getting to the bottom of Climategate. Roger Harrabin
Statement of the climate (find all reports since 1995)
WMO 1999 mentioned by ICCER
Global warming skeptics:Climate Audit
Will be updated (reading list) shortly.... [has been updated - will add more if I find interesting material]