Malice in Wonderland

The climate wars have been interesting indeed in the last week or so, primarily because the raison d’etre of the King of Deniers (Anthony Watts of WUWT) has been comprehensively debunked –  and by scientists who have self-defined as climate skeptics!

A little background: a couple of years ago, Watts created a huge furore on his blog and on , a community temperature measuring site he was instrumental in founding, by claiming that the Urban Heat Island effect had distorted US land-based temperature trends upwards, that temperature station siting was usually poor, and that the evidence for global warming was thus in fact compromised.  (And he frequently insinuated that climate scientists knew this and were deliberately concealing the truth).

Now Urban Heat Island is a known effect –  cities are often warmer than the surrounding countryside, partly because of having more reflective surfaces and partly because there are many more heat sources –  humans, vehicle exhausts, air conditioner vents etc.

But in itself, that doesn’t matter when computing trends.  What matters is not whether the absolute temperature of city temperature stations is higher than that of rural stations, but whether there is a steeper warming trend in urban stations.

Watts identified a subset of rural stations which were, according to him, pristine, and insisted that the temperature record should take only these into account.  He went so far as to write a report (for the Heartland Institute, one of the nastier oil thinktanks) on the quality of many urban stations, attacking the NOAA figures in particular and the global temperature in general as unreliable, and saying that the data smoothing techniques used by NOAA and various other scientific bodies introduced a further warming bias.  The report is anecdotal and was not subjected to any kind of peer review; yet Watts insisted that it disproved global warming and that by ignoring it, climate scientists were misleading the public.  (He was one of the noisier assailants during the Climategate saga).

Several people (including NOAA –  the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) took up the challenge, did the arithmetic on the pristine stations, and concluded that urban stations did not affect the trend at all; in fact the pristine stations introduced a slight warming bias!

None of this was good enough for Watts.  Having been attacked for not having the report peer-reviewed, he succeeded in finding a group of scientists who would co-publish with him.  The result was Fall et al (Watts was not the lead author), which examined the UHI stations versus the pristine ones –  and found no difference.

One would hope that Watts would have learned something from this episode (like trusting the data and only the data?), but apparently not.  In about March of this year, he started promoting something called the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperatures Study (BEST), a UCB project which sets out to revisit the global temperature record, use better statistical techniques to analyse it, and in particular, re-examine the Urban Heat Island effect in some detail.

The project includes Prof Richard Muller and Judith Curry, both climate skeptics, as well as several other scientists, mostly physicists.  It came under fire for having received funding from, amongst others, Koch Industries, one of the most polluting companies around and one which invests heavily in spreading climate disinformation and attacking regulatory legislation.

Watts waxed lyrical about the project here and famously said “And, I’m prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong.” (5th paragraph below the graph).  He also posted Fred Singer’s endorsement of the project (readers of Naomi Oreskes’ excellent book Merchants of Doubt may recall that Fred Singer is one of those scientist-for-hire who will peddle their expertise to the highest bidder and distort the science to reflect whatever the buyer wants it to reflect.  He was perhaps most notoriously affiliated with TASSC, a Philip Morris-funded tobacco industry thinktank, but has involved himself with acid rain, the ozone hole, and global warming as well.)

Clearly, Watts, Singer, Koch Industries and other deniers with a vested interest in fending off action on climate change, all thought they were onto a good thing, with a paper supporting their views about to emerge from a prestigious and liberal university.

There was just one little problem: BEST didn’t play ball.

This week (20 October 2011) they released their preliminary findings (four papers which have been submitted to journals for peer review). The effect of urban heating on the global trends, they said, is nearly negligible.

Erstwhile skeptic Muller said:

“”My hope is that this will win over those people who are properly skeptical.  Some people lump the properly sceptical in with the deniers and that makes it easy to dismiss them, because the deniers pay no attention to science. But there have been people out there who have raised legitimate issues.”

Which camp does Watts fall into, skeptic or denier?  We know what he would claim to be; his attempts to position himself as a maverick scientist rather than a has-been TV weatherman have reached embarassing proportions.  But he had, after all, promised in writing to accept the results of the BEST study with grace, even if they proved him wrong.

Yeah, right.

First he attacked them for releasing their study before it was peer-reviewed.  For someone who has been attacking the peer-review system for years and published his own material without any review at all, this is rich.

Then he published a post about the things that he did agree with in their paper (not very much), presumably to deflect the completely justified accusations of hypocrisy that were being levelled at him from all over the web.

In addition, he reprinted a post from another conservative thinktank, the inaptly-named Global Warming Policy Foundation, which cherry-picked a juicy soundbite from the BEST paper, namely that the “human component of global warming may be somewhat overestimated”, reproduced it completely out of context and then went on the attack against the media for not running this as a headline.

The entire post is a pack of lies, as one commenter spotted (he was something of a voice in the wilderness).  What the paper actually said was this:

“Since 1975, the AMO has shown a gradual but steady rise from -­‐0.35 C to +0.2 C (see Figure 2), a change of 0.55 C. During this same time, the land-­‐average temperature has increased about 0.8 C. Such changes may be independent responses to a common forcing (e.g. greenhouse gases); however, it is also possible that some of the land warming is a direct response to changes in the AMO region. If the long-­‐term AMO changes have been driven by greenhouse gases then the AMO region may serve as a positive feedback that amplifies the effect of greenhouse gas forcing over land. On the other hand, some of the long-­‐term change in the AMO could be driven by natural variability, e.g. fluctuations in thermohaline flow. In that case the human component of global warming may be somewhat overestimated.” 

In other words, AMO (the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, which controls the Gulf Stream), might be responsible for some of the warming if it was an independent forcing, but might not be if it was a feedback response to an external forcing.  This is a hypothetical statement, not a conclusion, and it refers to an aspect of the record which the BEST team did not study. 

(In fact the AMO’s contribution to warming has been thoroughly analysed and shown to be both small and related to the oscillation but not to long term trends –  there’s a good post on the subject here.)

Snipping the previous sentence (and thereby destroying the context), headlining the last sentence of the paragraph, and then claiming it as a conclusion from the paper, and one which should have been newsworthy, is thus egregious dishonesty and propaganda; it’s very hard for me to see how this could be an honest mistake.  But that didn’t stop Watts or the GWPF.

So far from accepting the results of the paper, as he promised to do, Watts has carried on with the usual sorry trail of canards, misrepresentations and ad hominem attacks, while the climate blogosphere laughs their collective heads off at the comprehensive debunking of his pet theory.  Watching the shenanigans, and Watts’ attempts to wriggle out of his predicament, gives us an unvarnished look at how denial-think operates.  (Never let the facts interfere with a good story!).

It would be funny (in a grim sort of way), if it wasn’t so serious, and if there weren’t so many people out there who believe Watts and swallow this sort of twaddle hook, line and sinker.

But as things stand, the deniers are winning, simply by virtue of succeeding in spreading doubt where there shouldn’t be any, and thus delaying or even undoing government action on climate change. And whatever will we tell our children?


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