Friday, 27 November 2009

Why understanding climate science matters

It's been a pretty fun week for climate followers. We're in the run up to Copenhagen, where our elected and unelected leaders will decide what changes we should make to our economy (including sending climate reparations to poor countries).

We've also had had a "hack" into the CRU computers (although there is a small amount of circumstantial evidence to suggest it was a leak) exposing a range of emails along with a few small chunks of code.

At the same time, we've had recent stories talking about the disaster that will befoul us all if we don't make some serious adjustments to our lifestyle (Yes, that last link does advocate killing 30% of our livestock).

And we've had stories showing how some of the datasets used to back up the "unprecedented" warming has been "Artificially Adjusted" from a flat line.

Recently we've found out that Copenhagen probably won't get a result, so smaller groups of countries are getting together to make their own deals (such as the Commonwealth plus a few other countries over this weekend).

OK, as far as I see it, there are several camps. On one side we've got a bunch of people saying that the science is settled and if we don't make major changes to our way of life now, we'll be in trouble later. On the other we have some people disputing the maths behind the science and suggesting that it may be an idea until we can get a much better idea of what's actually happening before we commit ourselves to what is likely to be an extremely costly plan. And there's the many people in the middle who don't really care, but appear to lean towards scepticism.

Assuming the science is settled, as we've been told (not least by the BBC who decided that because of this, there's no reason to give both parties equal billing) then pretty much anyone should be able to reproduce a serious chunk of the work themselves. I'm not suggesting that everyone should be able to produce a seriously complex model describing the entire climate ecosystem, but we should certainly be able to look at a graph of CO2 and temperature and see clearly and visibly how they are linked.

At the moment pretty much every climate graph you see is either extremely long term (i.e. using the now discredited sediment and tree-core data) or from 1971. The latter is to hide the cooling period from 1940-1970 where CO2 increased and global temperatures dropped. We should be allowed to see all the information and make our own minds up.

The reason why the CRU data is vitally important is because they are the guys and girls who produce the Global Temperatures, both for recent years and historically. They produce the most critical part of the whole climate modelling. If this isn't right, nothing else will be.

I don't actually think the emails that have emerged are that important, despite the focus placed on them by the mainstream media. Sure, there's some bad wording but quite frankly, I wouldn't like my 'private' work emails to be publicly released. I'm sure I have used language that wouldn't show myself, or my work in the best possible light. The appearance of avoiding the FOI requests looks bad, but quite frankly has little impact on whether they're doing the right thing, despite making it hard to reproduce their work.

I actually found the code they've used to produce their global temperatures and the comments inside it much more interesting. There's actually a great file called HARRY_READ_ME.txt which appears to be describing the work done by some poor researcher as he tries to reproduce previous results and understand where they came from. It's fairly clear that someone with access to all the people, code and datasets used to produce the 'official' global temperatures (which I believe are available for pretty much anyone to have a look at) is pretty much unable to understand where these came from, when you look at the original 'raw' data from temperature monitoring stations. It appears that similar 'tricks' to that used in the New Zealand example linked above are being used on a global basis.

Basically, the database of global temperatures appears to have been built by discarding data that disagrees with the theory and enhancing the status of the data that does agree.

Why does this matter? If we can't even be sure that the historic temperatures we're using to drive our climate models are right, then we certainly can't be sure that the results of those models (Latest I've seen is 6 degrees of warming at the end of the century) are actually right. Hell, surely if the science was settled, we'd only have one model which matched historic results perfectly and was able to make predictions about coming years, which then come true.

The models we're using to make political and economic decisions at Copenhagen can't do this. Even CRU researchers admit that they are unable to explain the current 'decline in temperatures' with their modelling. This doesn't mean that their conclusions of massive global warming are wrong, it just doesn't mean that we've "proved" anything yet.

To my mind, we need to be pretty bloody sure before we gamble our future.

Disclosure: I am not a climate scientist. I am all for energy efficiency and where economically viable we should be using renewable energy. For a start, have you seen the torque of electrically driven vehicles? Energy efficiency is common sense, crippling our economy is not. For those suggesting that environmental policies could be economically advantageous, have a look here.

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