Archive for the ‘Consensus’ Category

FAQ for the article “Scientists’ Views about Attribution of Global Warming”

August 11, 2014

published in Environmental Science and Technology (open access), DOI: 10.1021/es501998e, Supporting Information here.

A formal version of the FAQ is also available at the website of the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. A blog post with a brief description of the main conclusions is here.



1. What are the objectives of this survey?

The PBL aimed to characterize the spectrum of scientific opinion about physical climate science issues. The research was focused on issues that are a frequent topic of public debate, and explored questions such as:

  • On which issues is there widespread agreement amongst scientists?
  • On which issues do scientists hold varied opinions?
  • How does the spectrum of scientific opinion compare to IPCC assessments?
  • How do scientists view skeptical arguments and viewpoints?

2. What is the relevance of an opinion survey or of measurement of consensus in trying to assess the science?

Science is based on the critical evaluation of available evidence in the context of existing knowledge. It is not “just an opinion.” With this survey, we tried to identify how scientists assess the different viewpoints that exist in public discussions of climate science. If the evidence for a certain viewpoint has become sufficiently strong and stable over time, the scientists’ aggregated opinion could be expected to reflect that.

3. Are the survey results publicly available?

The full survey results are not publicly available, because the PBL intends to use the data for further analyses.
The ‘straight counts’ for every question (i.e. the number of responses for each answer option) will be made publicly available in the near future. This is not segregated in different sub-groups.



4. How does this study compare to the often-quoted 97% consensus?

Our results are consistent with similar studies, which all find high levels of consensus among scientists, especially among scientists who publish more often in the peer-reviewed climate literature.

Cook et al. (2013) found that 97% of papers that characterized the cause of recent warming indicated that it is due to human activities. (John Cook, the lead author of that analysis, is co-author on this current article.) Similarly, a randomized literature review found zero papers that called human-induced climate change into question (Oreskes, 2004).

Other studies surveyed scientists themselves. For instance, Doran and Kendall-Zimmermann (2009) found lower levels of consensus for a wider group of earth scientists (82% consensus) as compared to actively publishing climatologists (97% consensus) on the question of whether or not human activity is a “significant contributor” to climate change. Our results are also in line with those of e.g. Bray and von Storch (2008) and Lichter (2007).

In our study, among respondents with more than 10 peer-reviewed publications (half of total respondents), 90% agree that greenhouse gases are the largest – or tied for largest – contributor to recent warming. The level of agreement is ~85% for all respondents.

While these findings are consistent with other surveys, several factors could explain the slight differences we found:

  • Surveys like ours focus on opinions of individual scientists, whereas in a literature analyses the statements in individual abstracts are tallied. Literature analyses have generally found higher levels of consensus than opinion surveys, since the consensus is stronger amongst more heavily published scientists.
  • This study sets a more specific and arguably higher standard for what constitutes the consensus position than other studies. For instance, Doran and Kendall-Zimmermann (2009) asked about human activity being a “significant contributor” to global warming, and Anderegg et al. (2010) investigated signatories of public statements, while we asked specifically about the degree to which greenhouse gases are contributing to climate change in comparison with other potential factors.
  • Contrarian viewpoints are somewhat overrepresented in our survey and they may have overestimated their self-declared level of expertise (see question 9).

5. How is the consensus or agreement position defined?

The consensus position was defined in two ways:

  • Greenhouse gases contributed more than 50% to global warming since the mid-20th (Question 1). This is analogous to what was written in IPCC AR4.
  • Greenhouse gases have caused strong or moderate warming since pre-industrial times (Question 3). “Moderate” warming was only interpreted as the consensus position if no other factor was deemed to have caused “strong” warming. This response means that greenhouse gases were considered the strongest –or tied for strongest- contributor to global warming.

The former definition exactly mirrors the main attribution statement in IPCC AR4 and served as a ‘calibration’ for the latter.

6. What does “relative response” mean on the y-axis of many Figures?

This gives the percentage of the respondents (often within a certain sub-group) for the specific answer option. We opted to show the relative response rather than the absolute response to enable comparing the responses of different sub-groups (with differing group sizes as denoted by N=…) within one graph.

7. What are “undetermined” answers?

Those are the sum of responses “I don’t know”, “unknown” and “other”.

8. Why do IPCC AR4 authors show a higher consensus than the other respondents?

AR4 authors are generally domain experts, whereas the survey respondents at large comprise a very broad group of scholars, including for example scientists studying climate impacts or mitigation. Hence we consider this to be an extension of the observation -in this study and in e.g. Anderegg et al. (2010) and Doran and Kendall-Zimmermann (2009) – that the more expert scientists report stronger agreement with the IPCC position. Moreover, on the question of how likely the greenhouse contribution exceeded 50%, many respondents provided a stronger statement than was made in AR4. Using a smaller sample of scientists, Bray (2010) found no difference in level of consensus between IPCC authors and non-authors.

9. How reliable are the responses regarding the respondent’s area of expertise and number of peer-reviewed publications?

Respondents were tagged with expertise fields, though these were in many cases limited and not meant to be exhaustive. These tags were mainly used to ensure that the group of respondents was representative of the group that the survey was sent to. A subset of respondents was also tagged with a Google Scholar metric. Those who were tagged as “unconvinced” reported more expertise fields than the total group of respondents and also a higher number of publications compared to their Google Scholar metrics, if available (see Supplemental Information).

10. Since most scientists agree with the mainstream and therefore most media coverage is mainstream, what is the problem with “false balance”?

Scientists with dissenting opinions report receiving more media attention than those with mainstream opinions. This results in a skewed picture of the spectrum of scientific opinion. Whether that is problematic is in the eye of the beholder, but it may partly explain why public understanding lags behind scientific discourse (e.g. the “consensus gap”).


Survey Respondents

11. How many responses did you get to the survey?

Out of 6550 people contacted, 1868 filled out the survey (either in part or in full).

12. How did you compile the list of people to be surveyed?

Respondents were selected based on

  • keyword search in peer-reviewed publications (“global climate change” and “global warming”)
  • recent climate literature (various sources)
  • highly cited climate scientists (as listed by Jim Prall)
  • public criticisms of mainstream climate science (as listed by Jim Prall)

13. Are all of the survey invitees climate scientists?

The vast majority of invitees are scientists who published peer-reviewed articles about some aspect of climate change (this could be climate science, climate impacts, mitigation, etc.). Not all of them necessarily see themselves as climate scientists.

14. Why did you invite non-scientist skeptics to take part in the survey?

They were included in the survey to ensure that the main criticisms of climate science would be included. They constitute approximately 3% of the survey respondents. Viewpoints that run counter to the prevailing consensus are therefore somewhat magnified in our results.

15. How representative are the survey responses of the “scientific opinion”?

It’s difficult to ascertain the extent to which our sample is representative, especially because the target group is heterogeneous and hard to define. We have chosen to survey the wider scientific field that works on climate change issues. Due to the criteria we used and the number of people invited we are confident that our results are indeed representative of this wider scientific field studying various aspects of global warming. We checked that those who responded to the survey were representative of the larger group of invitees by using various pieces of meta-information.

16. Did you take into account varying levels of expertise of respondents?

Respondent were asked to list their area(s) of expertise and their number of peer-reviewed publications. These and other attributes were used to interpret differences in responses.

17. How did you prevent respondents from manipulating the survey results, e.g. by answering multiple times?

An automatically generated, user specific token ensured that respondents could only respond once.

18. How did you ensure respondent anonymity?

Survey responses were analyzed by reference to a random identification number.


Survey Questions

19. Are the survey questions public?

Yes, survey questions and answer options are available on the PBL website and as Supporting Information (part 2) to the article.

20. How did you decide on the questions to ask?

The survey questions are related to physical science issues which are a frequent topic of public debate about climate change.

21. Was the survey reviewed before it was sent to respondents?

Yes, before executing the survey it has been extensively tested and commented on by various climate scientists, social scientists and science communicators with varying opinions, to ensure that questions were both clear and unbiased. Respondents were not steered to certain answers.


Reference: Bart Verheggen, Bart Strengers, John Cook, Rob van Dorland, Kees Vringer, Jeroen Peters, Hans Visser, and Leo Meyer, Scientists’ Views about Attribution of Global Warming, Environmental Science and Technology, 2014. DOI: 10.1021/es501998e. Supporting Information available here.

Please keep discussions on this thread limited to what is mentioned in this FAQ and to other questions you may have about the survey or the article. Discussion of the survey results should be directed at the more generic blog post.

Survey confirms scientific consensus on human-caused global warming

August 11, 2014
  • A survey among more than 1800 climate scientists confirms that there is widespread agreement that global warming is predominantly caused by human greenhouse gases.
  • This consensus strengthens with increased expertise, as defined by the number of self-reported articles in the peer-reviewed literature.
  • The main attribution statement in IPCC AR4 may lead to an underestimate of the greenhouse gas contribution to warming, because it implicitly includes the lesser known masking effect of cooling aerosols.
  • Self-reported media exposure is higher for those who are skeptical of a significant human influence on climate.

In 2012, while temporarily based at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL), my colleagues and I conducted a detailed survey about climate science. More than 1800 international scientists studying various aspects of climate change, including e.g. climate physics, climate impacts and mitigation, responded to the questionnaire. The main results of the survey have now been published in Environmental Science and Technology (doi: 10.1021/es501998e).

Level of consensus regarding attribution

The answers to the survey showed a wide variety of opinions, but it was clear that a large majority of climate scientists agree that anthropogenic greenhouse gases are the dominant cause of global warming. Consistent with other research, we found that the consensus is strongest for scientists with more relevant expertise and for scientists with more peer-reviewed publications. 90% of respondents with more than 10 climate-related peer-reviewed publications (about half of all respondents), agreed that anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHG) are the dominant driver of recent global warming. This is based on two different questions, of which one was phrased in similar terms as the quintessential attribution statement in IPCC AR4 (stating that more than half of the observed warming since the 1950s is very likely caused by GHG).

Verheggen et al - Figure 1 - GHG contribution to global warming

Figure 1. The more publications the respondents report to have written, the more important they consider the contribution of greenhouse gases to global warming. Responses are shown as a percentage of the number of respondents (N) in each subgroup, segregated according to self-reported number of peer-reviewed publications.

Literature analyses (e.g. Cook et al., 2013; Oreskes et al., 2004) generally find a stronger consensus than opinion surveys such as ours. This is related to the stronger consensus among highly published – and arguably the most expert – climate scientists. The strength of literature surveys lies in the fact that they sample the prime locus of scientific evidence and thus they provide the most direct measure of the consilience of evidence. On the other hand, opinion surveys such as ours can achieve much more specificity about what exactly is agreed upon and where the disagreement lies. As such, these two methods for quantifying scientific consensus are complementary. Our questions possibly set a higher bar for what’s considered the consensus position than some other studies. Furthermore, contrarian viewpoints were likely overrepresented in our study compared with others.

No matter how you slice it, scientists overwhelmingly agree that recent global warming is to a great extent human caused.


The role of scientific consensus in moving the public debate forward

February 7, 2014

Mike Hulme had an interesting essay at The Conversation, the main message of which was

In the end, the only question that matters [for the public debate about climate change] is, what are we going to do about it?

Hulme correctly argues that the basic science is clear enough so that for society the important issues to discuss are not science related, but policy related. I argued much the same here. He writes:

What matters is not whether the climate is changing (it is); nor whether human actions are to blame (they are, at the very least partly and, quite likely, largely); nor whether future climate change brings additional risks to human or non-human interests (it does).

Let’s leave the minor quibble aside that AR5 puts the anthropogenic contribution at ‘extremely likely’ having caused more than half of the recent global warming.

The part where I disagree with Hulme is where he argues that showing the existence of a scientific consensus on the above (it is warming; it’s due to us; it’s bad news) somehow stands in the way of  getting society to discuss that most important question. I think the opposite is true. It is the continuous doubt about the science, sowed by those who oppose a serious discussion about what to do, that is a stumbleblock. Showing that a consensus amongst experts exists would enable society to more swiftly move on to the important conversation on what to do about it. I agree with Hulme that on this deeply ethical question there is, and ought to be, a multitude of opinions.

As Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook write in a response to Mike Hulme:

The public’s perception of that scientific consensus is necessary to stimulate political debate about solutions.

Another element that’s missing from this discussion is that scientific and ideological arguments  should be clearly distinguished from each other (“is” vs “ought”).

Unfortunately, ideological arguments are often dressed in a sciency-looking cloak. From that perspective, I appreciate the honesty in Lindzen stating blunty “we’ll all be dead by then”, the obvious implication being: so why care. That’s indeed what a lot comes down to: How do you value the future compared the present?

Scott Denning’s smashing presentation at Heartland climate conference ICCC6

August 13, 2011

Listen to Scott Denning’s sharp and to-the-point presentation, which he gave at Heartland’s climate conference, here. It’s worth the full 16 minutes of it. He rocks. Alternatively, read this little recap:

Denning attended the Heartland conference for the second year in a row and it seems like he’s outdone himself by giving an even better and sharper presentation than last years (which was excellent as well).

He emphasized some very important things:

- The big picture is what matters; details do not (at least in terms of policy relevance; for science nerds of course it’s different)

- Part of that big picture is that, whatever the sensitivity, a 400% increase in CO2 is going to make a big difference to the climate, because of the simple fact that adding heat warms things up.

- He offered a big challenge to the (strongly contrarian and libertarian) audience: Propose and advocate for effective solutions, otherwise others will. Policy will be enacted anyway. His challenge got particularly strong when he said “do you want Greenpeace to dictate the policy? (…) Are you cowards?”


Eric Wolff on areas of agreement and on the public debate about climate science

May 25, 2011

Dr. Eric Wolff is spot on (see also further below): 

as an outsider to the blogosphere, it surprises me that so many people, presumably mostly with even less knowledge and training than me, seem absolutely convinced they have mastered every area of climate science.

A peculiar line-up of speakers assembled recently at the Conference on the Science and Economics of Climate Change in Cambridge: Phil Jones, Andrew Watson, John Mitchell, Michael Lockwood, Henrik Svensmark, Nils-Axel Morner, Ian Plimer, Vaclav Klaus and Nigel Lawson. Bishop Hill reports that

Dr Eric Wolff of the British Antarctic Survey tried valiantly to find a measure of agreement between the two sides.

This proved an interesting exercise and resulted in a useful list (also reproduced by Judith Curry) on what we can all agree on (perhaps excluding those too far out on the fringes; links added by me):

  1. CO2 does absorb infrared radiation
  2. The greenhouse effect (however badly named) does occur in practice: our planet and the others with an atmosphere are warmer than they would be because of the presence of water vapour and CO2.
  3. The greenhouse effect does not saturate with increasing CO2
  4. The CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has risen significantly over the last 200 years
  5. This is because of anthropogenic emissions (fossil fuels, cement production, forest clearance). [Ian Plimer disagreed, but as Curry stated: "the anthropogenic contribution is (should be) undisputed"]
  6. If we agree all these statements above, we must expect at least some warming. [Bishop Hill noted “broad agreement” with this point]
  7. The climate has warmed over the last 50 years, [as is evident from] land atmospheric temperature, marine atmospheric temperature, sea surface temperature, and (from Prof Svensmark) ocean heat content, all with a rising trend.
  8. We probably don’t agree on what has caused the warming up to now, but it seemed that Prof Lockwood and Svensmark actually agreed it was not due to solar changes, because although they disagreed on how much of the variability in the climate records is solar, they both showed solar records without a rising trend in the late 20th century. [Excellent point and ironically hitting Svensmark with a stick of his own making. Note the distinction between variability and trend.]
  9. On sea level, I said that I had a problem in the context of the day, because this was the first time I had ever been in a room where someone had claimed (as Prof Morner did) that sea level has not been rising in recent decades at all.  I therefore can’t claim we agreed, only that this was a very unusual room.  However, I suggested that we can agree that, IF it warms, sea level will rise, since ice definitely melts on warming, and the density of seawater definitely drops as you warm it.
  10. Finally we come to where the real uncertainties between scientists lie, about the strength of the feedbacks on warming induced by CO2 [i.e. climate sensitivity]

Eric Wolff also chimed in with a substantial comment over at Bishop Hill’s, rebutting some commonly heard arguments and making some very spot-on remarks:


I should first state the rationale for the summary I made at the Downing event. The meeting was about the science and economics of climate change, and I was asked to lead a discussion that came between the science talks and the two economics talks. I therefore felt the most useful thing I could do was to try to summarise what we had heard, as a basis for the discussion of whether society should do anything in response to that, and if so what. In particular I did hear a surprising number of things on which almost everyone in the room could agree, and it seemed worth emphasising that, rather than rehearsing old arguments.

I notice in the thread here several comments about who sets the “terms of the debate”, and about the “context of the debate”. While such phrasings may make sense in discussing energy policy, it is a strange way to discuss the science. Our context is the laws of physics and our observations of the Earth in action; our aim as scientists is to find out how the Earth works: this is not a matter of debate but of evidence. I think some of the comments on this blog come dangerously close to suggesting that we should first decide our energy policy, and then tell the Earth how to behave in response to it.

Regarding Plimer’s proposal that volcanic emissions were more important than we thought, (…) if volcanoes were “causing” the recent increase, then around 1800 their emissions would have had to rise above their stable long-term rate, and then stayed high. This is however a rather hypothetical discussion because the change in the isotopic composition of CO2 in the atmosphere over the industrial period is not consistent with an increased volcanic source anyway.

Regarding the idea that the “temperature increase stopped in 2000”: my point is that we know there are natural variations (due eg to El Nino) that cause runs of a few years of temperature colder than the average or a few years warmer. Look on the record at the decade around 1910 for example when there was a long run of cold years on a flat background.

Such a period superimposed on a trend would look like the last decade (but more so). The point of my analogy is that you can’t determine the trend over several months by measuring the gradient in a run of a few days. Similarly, you simply can’t determine a multidecadal trend by measuring the gradient over a few years because all you get is the “noise” of natural variability.

Professor Morner claims that globally sea level has not risen at all; he dismisses the evidence, from both satellites and the global tide gauge network, that it has. (…) There are numerous reasons why a single site can show a sea level signal, either real or apparent, that departs from the global mean.

I am not the best person to discuss models and feedbacks in detail (see comment on expertise below). However, I could not let two issues pass. Firstly, when models are run out for a century into the future, they do indeed show runs of years with flat temperatures amidst a trend (…) (because of El Nino and other natural factors). I am therefore not clear why this is evidence that something is missing. Regarding positive feedbacks: a positive feedback implies amplification, but not a system out of control; this is only the case if the sum of the gain factors is greater than 1.

Finally, a few specific issues that interested or worried me.

(…) CO2 emits infrared as well as absorbing it. (…) indeed, this property is precisely why its effects do not saturate (but fall logarithmically), because it allows the height from which the emitted radiation finally escapes to rise into regions with less and less air.

Geckko accidentally made an important point. S/he did not like the statement: “We can agree that if it warms the sea level will rise”, because it was too simplistic. Well, as a scientist I always like to boil things down to a statement that my brain can grasp, but that contains the essential explanation of an observation or process. And this one does, for example being demonstrably what was observed in going from a cold ice age world, with sea level 120 metres below the present level, to the present. However, you are right: there are factors that could make this statement false, such as increased snowfall when it warms, adding more ice into ice sheets. As soon as several such competing processes have to be taken into account, our brains cannot predict the outcome, and so we have to resort to putting all the “millions of assumptions” into a numerical model and seeing which of them “win”. An argument for models?

Coldish made a good point about expertise, and this is where I am going to go into a slightly more challenging area. I freely admit that I am not an expert on all, or even most, aspects of climate. When I reach a topic that I have not previously studied, I go to those who are experts, either in person or by reading their work. I maintain scepticism about some of their conclusions, but my working assumption is that they are intelligent and that they have probably thought of most of the issues that I will come up with. Can I observe as an outsider to the blogosphere, that it surprises me that so many people, presumably mostly with even less knowledge and training than me, seem absolutely convinced they have mastered every area of climate science.

and more so, convinced that they are right and almost all of the experts are wrong. That must be the height of hubris.

However, Coldish specifically mentioned IPCC, and I think there is also an interesting point to make about that. At the Downing event, there seemed to be two IPCCs in the room. To some it was a huge plot, masterminded by some mysterious power that manipulates troublesome scientists. To me and the scientists in the room, it is (at least in WG1) simply a set of well-researched review papers, describing the present state of the peer-reviewed literature. I mention this only because I think the former view is a type of groupthink where, because people form an extreme opinion in their private space, they think it is widely held, or even true.

Alas, Wolff’s forray into the blogosphere was short, as is evident from a short comment a while later:

Just in case anyone thinks they are addressing me with their remarks:

I thought this might indeed be a chance for a civilised discussion, and some of the respondents seem happy to have that. However there are also a lot of remarks on here that are frankly rude and aggressive, and I won’t be returning. Now I remember why I hate the blogosphere.

IPCC history and mandate

October 1, 2010

The purpose of the IPCC was to assess the state of knowledge on the various aspects of climate change including science, environmental and socio-economic impacts and response strategies.

I.e. it was meant to report on and asses the scientific knowledge. This includes the question of how much evidence and (as a result) how much agreement amongst experts (consensus) there is for human induced climate change.

Some science historians point to other important aspects of IPCC’s history. The National Academy of Sciences wrote in 1979:

A plethora of studies from diverse sources indicates a consensus that climate changes will result from man’s combustion of fossil fuels and changes in land use.

Oreskes shows that the IPCC was set up in response to the emerging consensus in the 70’s/80’s that global warming due to GHG emissions would likely become a problem.

Spencer Weart writes:

The concern [about impending climate change] gave rise to the IPCC.

And also points to the Reagan administration being in favor of the clumsy IPCC approach, hoping that it would downplay the scientists’ fears.

When pointing to scientists who disagree with the IPCC consensus, it is important to note that people can agree in basically two directions. The survey by Brown, Pielke Sr and Annan for example shows this to be an approximate bell curve: Most (45-50%) of the respondents (scientists) more or less agree with the main thrust, and sizeable minorities (15-20%) think that IPCC overstated or understated its case. I discussed this survey and the broader question of why the consensus matters before. And I probably will pick this up again soon.

Scientifically, the more uncertain areas are the most interesting. However, if I look at the political decision making in terms of emission reductions and knowledge of the big picture (and the length of time that we’ve known about this big picture, albeit in gradually more certain terms), I can’t but conclude that the politics is hopelessly lagging behind the scientific knowledge in taking this problem seriously. (see e.g. my Dutch post “tijd voor de politiek om wetenschap serieuzer te nemen”.) Of course I’m aware that there’s more that informs politics than just the science, but still, there seems to be an uncomfortably big disconnect there. Stark warnings from science are ignored at our peril.

At this point in time, the uncertainties are pretty much irrelevant for policymaking, because any realistic change in the uncertain details is not going to affect the main trust of what we know, and thus the policy response that people may favour. For the long term, of course we need to finetune our knowledge, so research is still needed. (Hey, I’m a scientist, so I kind of have to say that, right?)

As Herman Daly said:

“Focusing on them [the big picture of what we know] creates a world of relative certainty, at least as to the thrust and direction of policy.” On the other hand, focusing on the more uncertain rates and valuations creates “a world of such enormous uncertainty and complexity as to paralyze policy”.

Perhaps that’s indeed what’s happening now, also cf. Judith’s uncertainty monster and complexity monster.

“To make the point more simply, if you jump out of an airplane you need a crude parachute more than an accurate altimeter.”

Funny how Daly and Curry both address the huge issues of uncertainty and complexity and arrive at diametrically opposed strategies of dealing with them. In terms of public communication, I’m with Daly.

From the principles governing IPCC work:

The role of the IPCC is to assess on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to understanding the scientific basis of risk of human-induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation.

IPCC reports should be neutral with respect to policy, although they may need to deal objectively with scientific, technical and socio-economic factors relevant to the application of particular policies.

Funnily enough, a commenter at Judith’s, Paul in Sweden, took this as proof of a “blatantly biased agenda”. Which is a little strange in light of the history of climate science and of the IPCC as mentioned above. Its mandate is a consequence of the scientific evidence for human induced climate change having become increasingly strong and societally relevant. It doesn’t state what the conclusion ought to be –it has to follow the science-, but of course it states what it’s supposed to assess.

Judith Curry also seems to suggest that the IPCC reports are working towards a predetermined conclusion, when she claims that they are akin to a legal brief (meant to persuade). If true, that should be reflected by large differences between the scientific evidence and the IPCC reports, and between scientists’ opinions and the IPCC reports.  I have not seen evidence of either.

Tom Curtis made some very thoughtful comments on the consensus thread at Judith’s, e.g.

In other words, the IPCC was tasked with reporting the consensus view of the science, were such a consensus existed; and to explain and report the differing opinions where no such consensus existed. Whether they have done that is not best judged by whether they have explained and included the opinions of every crackpot fringe group with an axe to grind on global warming; nor even those of every climatologist, no matter how small a number might support their views. Rather, they are to be judged by the agreement between the IPCC reports and the known consensus and divergences of scientific opinion.

Fortunately, we have available several anonymous surveys of the scientists opinions, which show conclusively that the IPCC reports fairly represent the consensus of relevant scientists on those topics on which it reports. (…)

The purpose of IPCC is to provided as succinctly as possible the best possible scientific advice for policy deciders to operate on. If they were required to consider all and every idea on climate change that circulates on the blogosphere; then the resulting document would be to large, and to ill organised to be usefull as a guide to policy.

Nevermind that the politicans still wouldn’t have a clue as to what is more likely true. The science has to be assessed and weighted; that is what makes the IPCC process useful. There already is another outlet for every crackpot idea out there (NIPCC report); it doesn’t need to be done by the IPCC as well.

To quote the Dutch newspaper “Volkskrant” again:

its work has political implications, but that that doesn’t mean that it’s engaged in doing politics.

And since I discussed history as well, see also my first blog post where I described the IPCC process. I don’t think anyone has read it yet, so I’d be much obliged. And while doing self-promotion, I kind a like this oldie featuring Fred Singer.

What do we know?

October 26, 2009

- The direction of the (expected) changes is clear

      – Globe is warming

      – It’s due to us

      – It’s bad news

- Carbon is forever; Aerosols are not

- Uncertainty + Inertia = Danger

That is the short version of what scientists know about climate change.

And a normative statement: 

- Science should inform policy measures. We are used to that regarding human health; we should also get used to it regarding climate change.

update: See here for a more elaborate description of the scientific consensus on climate change.

The NIPCC report: don’t be fooled

June 13, 2009

(Nederlandse samenvatting hier)              (For a sneak preview, see the bottom line below)

The new ammunition put forward by “skeptics” seems to be the Heartland InstitutesNIPCC report 2009 (“Climate change reconsidered”). It is made to resemble, at least in format and in name, the IPCC report. According to Dutch “skeptic” (and contributor to the report) Hans Labohm it completely shatters the AGW (anthropogenic global warming) theory (e.g. here, in Dutch). That’s a very bold assertion, which should be backed up by very strong evidence for it to be taken seriously. Let’s take a look at the executive summary…

Second opinion
The preface starts as follows: “Before facing major surgery, wouldn’t you want a second opinion?”
Now that’s funny. I recently described the IPCC process using the same analogy: If you get a second opinion on your health condition, and it confirms what your specialist said in the first place, your trust in the diagnosis probably increases. Now imagine that you collect the interpretations of medical professionals all over the world, and by and large they their conclusions converge to the same broad picture. This happens to be how the IPCC comes to its conclusions.
Their opening statement is actually a strong argument for going with the consensus position on a complex topic. Yet they use it to argue in the opposite direction; very peculiar.

It continues: “When a nation faces an important decision that risks its economic future, or perhaps the fate of the ecology, it should do the same.” (i.e. getting a second opinion)
Huh? Risking our economic future? If they’re talking about the costs of emission reduction, they are seriously exaggerating. Who is being alarmist here? There will be winners and losers, yes, but that’s something entirely different. Everybody has a choice to join the winners or the losers. Different from the horse races, it’s easy this time to predict who (in the long run) will be the winners and who will be the losers. Take your pick.

The usual stuff
The previous NIPCC report has already been commented on by RealClimate, and it doesn’t seem like there’s much news under the sun this time. The same old and tired arguments feature in the current report. The RealClimate article has many links that debunk the various talking points, and I’m not going to repeat all of them here. A presentation from the lead author, Fred Singer, has been briefly discussed at RealClimate as well. It’s a good example of yet another groundhog day. For those who have followed the staged ‘climate debate’, the list of authors is revealing: Many of the usual suspects, with a history so to speak.

There are the usual, to be expected arguments, like that it’s all the sun’s fault. And logical fallacies, like ‘the climate changed before without human activity being involved, so therefore it must be natural now as well’. Try that line of argument in a court of law against a pyromaniac, by saying that forest fires have always happened naturally. It won’t fly, and it reveals that this report is not about science. The good thing is, with such erroneous lines of reasoning, no specialized knowledge is needed to see that.

Degrees of uncertainty
What I didn’t expect, however, was to see otherwise interesting research be put in a context as if it somehow “falsifies the AGW theory”. In many cases, it hardly has any relevance to the attribution of current climate change, or to future projections.

Ironically, their main argument against climate modeling is its associated uncertainty (mistaking it for knowing nothing, and ignoring that uncertainty goes both ways). That doesn’t stop them from putting forward hypothetical feedbacks that have no evidence whatsoever of operating on a globally significant scale. By the way, climate modeling is mocked in the report as merely being “the opinions of scientists transformed by mathematics and obscured by complex writing”. Doesn’t sound like they know what a climate model really is.

The report goes on to describe many hypothetical feedbacks in the climate system. Of course, they are all negative: They counteract the initial warming, independent of the cause for the warming. Their combined effect, is the hope, should be evidence that the climate sensitivity is an order of magnitude (!) smaller than the commonly accepted range (between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees C for a doubling of CO2). Not just 50%, no, a factor of 10, I kid you not. My alarm bells go off. Let’s see what the implications of such low climate sensitivity would be. Any climate forcing (whether natural or human induced) would be so strongly damped as to hardly have any effect on global temperatures. But then how come the globe is warming, and has warmed and cooled in the past? A logical consequence of their theory (negligible climate sensitivity) is that it’s hardly possible for the earth’s climate to change. Indeed, there is no physics-based climate model that can satisfactorily model both the current and past climates with such low climate sensitivity.

Many of the proposed feedbacks involve the cooling effects of aerosols. They suggest that these cooling effects are larger than reported by the IPCC. That is contradicted by climate models providing a very decent match to the observed cooling following a major volcanic eruption (emitting sulfate aerosol in the stratosphere). Moreover, some have argued that a strong aerosol radiative forcing means that the climate sensitivity has to be large in order to still be able to explain the temperature trend of the last 100 years, so they seem to be shooting in their own foot.

They come up with all kinds of hypothetical feedback mechanisms involving more natural aerosol emissions in response to global warming: Dimethylsulfide from marine phytoplankton (although a very intriguing possibility, this has never been confirmed to be a significant feedback mechanism, and there is ample evidence to the contrary, which is omitted from the report), biological aerosols (idem), carbonyl sulfide (idem), nitrous oxide (idem), and iodocompounds (idem), about which they write the following:
“Iodocompounds—created by marine algae— function as cloud condensation nuclei, which help create new clouds that reflect more incoming solar radiation back to space and thereby cool the planet.”
Nou breekt mijn klomp (“Now my clogg breaks”), as I would say in Dutch. This route to atmospheric particle formation may be important at coastal sites with exposed seaweed, but its global importance is questionable to say the very least; at present it could best be considered an interesting thought experiment. Moreover, freshly nucleated particles have to grow by about a factor of 100,000 in mass before they start affecting climate, and a lot can happen to them before they reach the necessary size.

All very interesting research topics, but to claim that they are somehow evidence for negligible climate sensitivity is an extreme example of over-interpretation. In these active areas of research, where no firm conclusions have been reached yet on global significance, they selectively cite only those articles that they can somehow spin to support their desired conclusion. I feel that I’ve read enough of this report to know what it’s worth.

Bottom line
This report exhumes a very strong and unfounded faith in negative feedbacks from nature, which are hypothetical with sometimes sketchy, often contradictory, and sometimes no evidence of actually operating at a globally significant scale. This highlights an inconsistent view of uncertainty, and an unwillingness to weigh the evidence: “If it causes cooling, the uncertainty (or lack of evidence) doesn’t matter; if it causes warming, it’s too uncertain (and no evidence strong enough) to matter”.

How would you know?
Let’s apply some of my own recommendations for non-specialists on judging sources:
– The report clearly misses the forest for the trees.
– It gives a hidden argument for going with the consensus (“second opinion”), but somehow twists that around.
– It’s characterization of the IPCC process has the smell of a conspiracy to it and is full of strawmen arguments.
– To their credit (and my surprise), I couldn’t find any obvious confusion of timescales, such as confusing weather and climate.
– It contains some embarrassing mistakes in basic logic.
– The two way cause-effect relationship between temperature and CO2 is not properly recognized.
– Their strong claim of shaking the foundations of climate science is extremely unlikely; They don’t provide compelling evidence for such an extraordinary claim; They vastly overestimate the likelihood of cooling effects (feedbacks), and underestimate, deny or ignore warming effects.
– They grossly exaggerate the economic risks of emission reduction, and downplay the risk of unmitigated climate change.
– Some of the authors have historical credentials in a relevant discipline, more than a few have not. The list of signatories at the end is very thin on relevant expertise.
– The Heartland Institute is a conservative think-tank and not a reliable source of scientific information.

Climate solutions

June 4, 2009

The public debate about the reality of human-induced climate change is perhaps mostly interesting from a psychology point of view: How come some people embrace the wishful thinking and flakey arguments from small splinter groups and distrust the evidence-based conclusions from the vast majority of relevant scientists? I think that in many cases the answer is that they don’t like the perceived consequences. In other cases it’s a matter of thinking along familiar lines. And for some, it may be the attraction of being the underdog, which, in extreme cases, leads some to think of themselves as (supporting) the new Galileo. And yet others may have been fooled into thinking that there still is a real scientific debate about the big picture (with not a little help from the popular media). After all, without reading the primary literature or attending relevant conferences, how would you know who is right? 

The more relevant discussion for society is about how to deal with climate change. How do we act in the face of uncertainty, but with real risks of problematic consequences? “Skeptics” could make a very useful contribution to such a discussion, if they started thinking about how to deal with climate change while at the same time minimizing the perceived consequences they dislike so much (e.g. taxes and regulations).

Waiting until disaster strikes (as desired ‘proof’) before starting to deal with the problem, is not a rational option. If a doctor is 90% certain that you have a dangerous illness, you probably want to start treatment as soon as possible. Or would you wait with treatment until the doctor is 99% or 100% certain? The problem is, doctors and scientists are never 100% certain.


So what do we do?


I’ll be writing more about this question in the near future. Specific topics that I intend to discuss are geo-engineering (intentional engineering of the Earth’s climate), biomass, transport options (biomass/hydrogen/electric powered vehicles), and others. These are not all clear-cut ‘solutions’, and their suitability in dealing with the problem is vigorously debated, including in the scientific arena. Finally some real debate, rather than the fake stuff.

Who to believe?

February 8, 2009


Amidst all the different information about climate change, how is a layperson going to know who is right? There are a few clues one could follow, that don’t require any specialized knowledge.


-          Seeing the forest for the trees. Nitpicking on small details, and then claiming or insinuating that this challenges the foundation of a whole scientific field. Over-interpreting the significance of a specific finding. This is by far the most prevalent style of argument that one has to watch out for. It usually goes something like “This particular study proves that global warming isn’t due to greenhouse gases”. People tend to forget that observing a bird in the sky doesn’t disprove gravity.

-     Consensus matters. If you get a second opinion on your health condition, and it confirms what your specialist said in the first place, your trust in the diagnosis probably increases. Now imagine that you collect the interpretations of medical professionals all over the world, and by and large they their conclusions converge to the same broad picture. This happens to be how the IPCC comes to its conclusions. If the professionals do their work seriously, than the existence of a consensus amongst them is absolutely relevant (though of course it is not absolute proof). The only way in which you can ignore a consensus as being irrelevant, is if you can somehow show that the professionals are all lying or incompetent. (See the next clue for what that brings you into.) Oreskes has an excellent presentation on this.

-          Beware of conspiracy theories. The consensus wouldn’t matter if somehow all those scientists had bought into the same conspiracy of wanting to take away your SUV. (Don’t laugh, there are many people who seem to think this way.)

-          Timescales. Climate is defined as the average weather over 30 years. (Year-to-year variability usually averages out over 30 years). Weather and climate are very frequently confused in the popular debate.

-          Spatial scales. Combined with the previous one, an example would be: “It was a very cold winter in the US this year (so global warming is a farce)”. This is also used the other way around: “It was a very warm winter in the US this year (so global warming is getting worse)”. Both are equally silly conclusions.

-          Logic. Some of the most heard ‘skeptical’ arguments don’t stand up to basic logic, and no knowledge of climate is needed to see that. Example: “Climate has always changed, so it is not caused by humans.” It wasn’t in the past, but that’s no evidence that it isn’t now. Try that line of argument in a court of law against a pyromaniac, by saying that forest fires have always happened naturally; it won’t fly.

-          Confusion of cause and effect. A consensus emerged as a result of the strength of the accumulated evidence, not the other way around. Activists may try to persuade you to trade in your SUV for a Prius because they’re worried about climate change; not the other way around. A tricky one is temperature and CO2: They influence each other both ways. (see also here

-          Think in terms of likelihood. How likely is the previous proposition of a mass conspiracy amongst stubborn scientists? How likely is it that scientists have for decades overlooked this little finding that supposedly shakes the foundations of a relatively well established science?

-          Think in terms of risk. What if we take measures against global warming and it turns out less bad than expected? What if we don’t take measures against global warming and it turns out worse than expected? (False positive and false negative, respectively. See also this comment at RealClimate) 

-          Check for consistency. If someone sais (rightfully) that one particular event (e.g. Kathrina) is not proof of man-made climate change, but then claims that the current cold winter is proof against, you should raise your eyebrows.

-          Expertise. In gauging the credibility of a source, their expertise is important to consider. When it concerns your health, you usually trust a doctor’s opinion more than that of a software engineer. It is not unreasonable to trust a climate scientist more than a doctor when it concerns climate. Of course this is not proof, but there is a difference in likelihood of them knowing what they’re talking about.

-          Motive. The credibility of a source also depends on their motives, both on economic and ideological grounds, for telling you a certain side of the story. What vested interests, if any, are there to the different sides of the story? In a worldview where government interference is deeply hated, could it be tempting to distort evidence that could possibly lead to calls for government action? In a worldview where societal problems are preferably tackled by government, does it make any sense to make up a phony problem to call for government action? I don’t know anyone who wants government action on a phony problem just for the sake of it. Don’t underestimate the power of ideology, but always include a sanity check. See also here and here.


This list is not exhaustive, so if you have other pointers to add to make sense of the public debate on climate change, please share them in a comment. Similar issues of weeding through sources have been discussed in a number of thoughtful posts here, e.g. this one on cherry picking. Other good discussions here, here and here.


Ideally, you would critically assess the evidence for each position to form a well founded opinion on anthropogenic global warming (AGW). In the absence of time to do so, you need to take some shortcuts to assess the flood of information about the topic. None of the clues discussed here constitute proof for or against AGW, but applying multiple clues simultaneously to gauge the credibility of a source can be helpful to ‘distinguish the chaff from the grain’ (het kaf van het koren te scheiden, as we say in Dutch).



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