Sunday, February 14, 2010

Things fall part, the centre cannot hold

Readers of this feature know that I love William Butler Yeats, the great Irish poet. One of his most famous poems is The Second Coming, in which he declaims as follows:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

When you listen to the acolytes of AGW, it seems as if they are providing this sort of dystopian vision:

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

This is Yeats providing an early template for Pete Townshend's similar observation, which came some 40 years later: Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.

Sometimes that is what the AGW debate seems like to me. We have been told for years now that the science is settled and we are on the brink of doom. The rough beast is coming 'round, mainly because the worst, and I assume I am part of the worst, are full of passionate intensity. It's easy to believe such things if you listen to the likes of our local state representative, the orange-clad green acolyte Kate Knuth, or Al Gore, or IPCC honcho Rajendra Pachauri, who all fear that the falcon is not listening to the falconer. They are trying to save us from our base impulses by jetting round the world to declaim against our base ways. And for the most part, Kate, Al and their pals aren't challenged on any of these assumptions, at least in America. It's just these crackpot bloggers who nip at their heels with their passionate intensity.

There are things that are relevant to the discussion that we just don't hear very much. You really need to get your news from places where there's still some intellectual curiosity. Take this example from The Daily Mail in London, which lets us know that The Second Coming may not be at hand after all:

The academic at the centre of the ‘Climategate’ affair, whose raw data is crucial to the theory of climate change, has admitted that he has trouble ‘keeping track’ of the information.

Colleagues say that the reason Professor Phil Jones has refused Freedom of Information requests is that he may have actually lost the relevant papers.

The dog ate his homework, I guess. But we should trust Jones, as Kate Knuth does, because the science is settled. Well, maybe not:

Professor Jones also conceded the possibility that the world was warmer in medieval times than now – suggesting global warming may not be a man-made phenomenon. And he said that for the past 15 years there has been no ‘statistically significant’ warming.

Really? Huh -- good to know! Glad we had this little talk, Professor Jones. Meanwhile, the Daily Mail makes this wry observation:

The admissions will be seized on by sceptics as fresh evidence that there are serious flaws at the heart of the science of climate change and the orthodoxy that recent rises in temperature are largely man-made.

I suppose that might be possible. We are full of passionate intensity.

So besides selection bias and the dog eating the homework, what else might account for the warming reported that makes the science "settled?" Let's ask the Times of London:

The United Nations climate panel faces a new challenge with scientists casting doubt on its claim that global temperatures are rising inexorably because of human pollution.

In its last assessment the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said the evidence that the world was warming was “unequivocal”.

It warned that greenhouse gases had already heated the world by 0.7C and that there could be 5C-6C more warming by 2100, with devastating impacts on humanity and wildlife. However, new research, including work by British scientists, is casting doubt on such claims. Some even suggest the world may not be warming much at all.

“The temperature records cannot be relied on as indicators of global change,” said John Christy, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, a former lead author on the IPCC.

And why would that be?

The doubts of Christy and a number of other researchers focus on the thousands of weather stations around the world, which have been used to collect temperature data over the past 150 years.

These stations, they believe, have been seriously compromised by factors such as urbanisation, changes in land use and, in many cases, being moved from site to site.

So the weather stations have moved? Or maybe a weather station that was in a field in 1950 now has a power plant 100 yards away? Didn't they tell us that?

Christy has published research papers looking at these effects in three different regions: east Africa, and the American states of California and Alabama.

“The story is the same for each one,” he said. “The popular data sets show a lot of warming but the apparent temperature rise was actually caused by local factors affecting the weather stations, such as land development.”
Those are human factors, of course, but unless we pave over entire continents, it's likely that the numbers aren't going to skew that much. There's always been an easy way to test changes in temperature yourself; you can always step out from underneath a tree into a sunny area. Oddly enough, it's warmer in the sunny area. Put a weather station in the middle of an asphalt parking lot and it might skew the numbers a bit.

Is the earth warming? Maybe. Is it warmer now than before? Maybe not. The point is, we don't know and the science is not "settled." In fact, the science is just beginning. Someone better tell Kate Knuth.


Gino said...

once the science is settled, it is no longer science, because science is about research and questions and study and contrasts etc.

they say the science is settled? then they arent being scientific about it.

Mr. D said...

Exactly, Gino. And as this thing unravels, what is becoming increasingly clear is that it was never science at all. It was, is and forever shall be advocacy.

Night Writer said...

You mean "human factors" such as decisions to move (or eliminate) weather stations from colder regions and/or higher altitudes? Bikebubba pointed us to the following from John Lott last week, supplementing what you have here:

But probably the most damaging report has come from Joseph D’Aleo, the first Director of Meteorology and co-founder of the Weather Channel, and Anthony Watts, a meteorologist and founder of

In a January 29 report, they find that starting in 1990, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began systematically eliminating climate measuring stations in cooler locations around the world. Yes, that's right. They began eliminating stations that tended to record cooler temperatures and drove up the average measured temperature. The eliminated stations had been in higher latitudes and altitudes, inland areas away from the sea, as well as more rural locations. The drop in the number of weather stations was dramatic, declining from more than 6,000 stations to fewer than 1,500.

D’Aleo and Watts show that the jumps in measured global temperature occur just when the number of weather stations is cut. But there is another bias that this change to more urban stations also exacerbates. Recorded temperatures in more urban areas rise over time simply because more densely populated areas produce more heat. Combining the greater share of weather stations in more urban areas over time with this urban heat effect also tends to increase the rate that recorded temperatures tend to rise over time.

Their report provides examples of how the systematic elimination of stations and unexplained adjustments in temperature data caused measured temperatures to rise for Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Norway, Sweden, and the United States. Many adjustments change what would have been a drop in temperatures into an increase. Take New Zealand, where D’Aleo and Watts note: “About half the adjustments actually created a warming trend where none existed; the other half greatly exaggerated existing warming.”

Mr. D said...

That's yet another problem, NW. It's getting hard to keep up, frankly.

Night Writer said...

The greatest warming is coming from holding these guys' feet to the fire.