Posts Tagged ‘anthropogenic forcing’

Judith Curry on anthropogenic versus natural causes of global warming

September 20, 2010

As most will know by now, Judith Curry has started her own blog, Climate Etc. In a recent post entitled “doubt” she said some things that highly surprised me. Basically, she claims equal evidence for anthropogenic forcing and natural variability being responsible for “most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century”:

As an example, my personal weights for the Italian flag are:

1. white 40% [uncertainty and unknowns]

2. green 30%, [evidence for anthropogenic forcing]

3. red 30%. [evidence against anthropogenic forcing]

Before posting this, I had an email conversation with Judith Curry about these issues (so as to minimize any misunderstanding on my part). She wrote back (reprinted with permission):

I think you are misunderstanding what the IPCC actually says.  The statement says MOST (>50%) of the warming can be attributed to  anthropogenic, with an confidence of very likely (>90%).    My balance of 50-50 is a hair outside the IPCC range (which could include 51-49), and 1% difference is in the noise here.   Most can imply 51% or 90%.   I will be discussing the issue of attribution at length in a future point.  But my main point in the doubt post is the size of the white area, which is bigger than 5-10% IMO.

So she would translate the IPCC statement in the Italian flag style as anywhere between

white: 10 -1

green: 46 – 89

red: 44 – 10

Her own estimate is not that far off (in terms of the ratio between green and red) from the most conservative IPCC statement (where “most” means “just a bit more than half”), except having a much greater estimate of the uncertainty (which is her main point). So she seems to interpret red and green as portions attributable to anthropogenic and natural forcing, whereas initially I had interpreted them as evidence for the statement at hand versus evidence against. Both makes sense, but both are different. Also, one could claim that the IPCC statement encapsulates the uncertainty in the fairly wide “most of the warming”, i.e. it could still span a wide range, allowing for plenty of uncertainty. Similar as say, the weather in a week’s time is very uncertain, but I can still say that it’s very likely to be in between zero and thirty degrees C (being late september in Holland). These different interpretations make me doubt the usefulness of the Italian flag symbol to aid in clarifying (dis-)agreements.

Judith also claims equal evidence / equal portions of attribution for her “litmus test question”:

Will the climate of the 21st century will be dominated by anthropogenic warming (green) or natural variability (solar, volcanoes, natural internal oscillations)?

which is the question with the greatest policy relevance, IMO.  My scores on this one are

green 25%

white 50%,

red 25%.

This is astounding. I interpret this as claiming equal evidence pointing to natural variability being dominant over the next 90 years as compared to anthropogenic forcing. Or alternatively, an equal portion of 21st century climate change being attributable to human induced warming as to natural variability.

I’ve read quite a few “skeptical” papers that attempt to blame the warming on natural processes, and even if you’d take them as face value (even though in most cases they haven’t stood up to scrutiny), their collective body of evidence is a molehill compared to the mountain of evidence pointing to the dominance of anthropogenic forcing.

In a comment, Judith points to a blog post at Skeptical Science, with graphs of several natural forcings (solar) and cycles (PDO, ENSO) for the past 25-30 years. They exerted a slight cooling effect over this period. In contrast, CO2 exerted a strong warming effect, and indeed, the temperature has gone up. That hardly qualifies as equal amounts of evidence pointing to the warming being natural versus anthropogenic.

For future warming, her pronouncement is even stranger. In all plausible scenario’s, greenhouse gas concentrations will continue to rise for at least another few decades; in a business as usual scenario for many more to come. What natural forcing or variability could plausibly rival this relentlessly rising anthropogenic forcing in magnitude? Is there evidence at all for that being plausible? If so, is that evidence really as large as the evidence showing that greenhouse gas forcing will exceed the likely bounds of natural variability (if it hasn’t already)?

Take a look at how the global average temperature has varied over the past 130 years (yearly averages with 11 year running mean in bold):

An indication of unforced natural variability is given by the year to year variation, amounting to 0.1 to 0.2 deg C on a yearly basis. As the Skeptical Science article shows, natural forcings can not explain the most recent warming, because they don’t exhibit a trend of the needed direction or magnitude.

Now let’s stipulate that it’s all due to longer term natural variation (as opposed to a forcing) of an unspecified kind. What would that mean for the planetary energy balance? If internal variations would have been responsible for most of the planetary warming, the earth would be emitting more energy to outer space than it receives, resulting in a negative radiative imbalance at the top of the atmosphere (or the energy would have to come from other parts of the earth’s system).

Neither is the case. It’s actually opposite: There is a positive radiation imbalance and other reservoirs (e.g. oceanscryosphere) are also gaining more energy.

And then we haven’t even looked into the future yet. I recently posted this graph of two scenario’s that plausibly bracket a business as usual trajectory (red) and a stringent emission reduction trajectory (blue). The measured temperature increase up to now (which according to most scientists is strongly impacted by anthropogenic emissions) is given by the black line.

Judith’s estimates for the 21st century come down to a chance of warming of 0.25 + 0.75/2 = 0.625 versus a chance of cooling of 0.375, assuming natural factors having a 50% chance of either warming or cooling. So she deems the chance of warming to be roughly twice that of cooling, presumably even in a BAU scenario. Too bad that’s too long of a timeframe to place a climate bet on.

Look at how much the red -and even the blue- projections will likely deviate from the recent temperatures. I sure hope that there will be some magical counteracting cooling effect, but I haven’t seen any plausible evidence for such.

Postscript: From our email conversation, I understand her point of view better than before. But unlike the statement about the 20th century warming, which is not as far off from the IPCC as I had initially thought (except for the amount of uncertainty), her statement about the projected 21st century warming is hard for me to square with the mainstream scientific view, for which there is lots of evidence.


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