Of Particular Significance

Climate Change in Climate Change

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

ON 10/24/2011

The most important thing that happened this week in Berkeley, California was definitely not the news of a  small and probably ephemeral excess of multi-lepton events at the Large Hadron Collider‘s CMS experiment — and probably not even the disconcerting earthquakes on (near?) the strained Hayward fault — it was the (public but not yet peer-reviewed) report from the Berkeley Earth Team, a group of mostly non-climate scientists [mostly from physics] who went back to analyze and check the data that climate scientists have been studying for years.  Go look at their website; it’s for you.

My understanding is that the scientific director, Richard Muller, organized the team because he was highly skeptical that climate scientists were treating their data properly. His agenda seems to have been largely scientific rather than political.  Though I did not share his point of view, I found it understandable. In my field we have often seen data mis-analyzed, even though high-energy physics is a largely apolitical domain. It is not easy, even with full scientific integrity, to avoid all sources of bias. With something that has enormous policy implications, such as climate change, there was some concern among serious scientists that error and/or group-think bias could set in within even a large community. The idea of having a largely independent review by scientifically experienced non-experts was a good one.

Well, in science, when you see vocal skeptics starting to come around to the point of view of those they previously criticized, you know the climate is changing.

I doubt we’ll ever have a more independent review than the Berkeley Earth Team has just given us. I don’t know all the scientists on the team, but I am confident at least that Saul Perlmutter (who just won the Nobel Prize) is of the highest integrity.  The team included only scientists who had not taken a public position on climate change, and their funding sources are very broad-based.  Moreover, unlike climate scientists, who could be subjected to the accusation of letting a vested interest in obtaining funding bias their science toward a prevailing viewpoint, some members of this team had to give up time from their own personal research, thereby reducing their funding opportunities, in order to participate in this endeavor. None of them has much obviously to gain — no probability of scientific recognition, prizes, funding, or even thanks — especially Muller, who in confirming what he expected the team would likely refute has burned plenty of bridges in the interest of honesty.

I’m definitely not qualified to comment on the details of climate science, and I haven’t read the report.  All I have to go on right now is the two-page summary of the results reported here:


which I highly recommend you personally read.  It has subtleties and details that the press is not capturing.

Nevertheless, it seems to me at this early stage that the report’s main result — that where it has so far come to conclusions, it agrees with what many climate scientists have long been saying — represents a success story for science, one worth noting. It confirms yet again that preconceptions and funding sources do not automatically determine scientific results. And it confirms also that it is possible, over time, to obtain consensus about nature — that even while the US Congress witnesses ideology placed before the nation’s best interest, the collective scientific process still manages to put the integrity of science first, and a scientist’s pride second.

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13 Responses

  1. And this does not take into account acidification: half the CO2 goes into the oceans, where it combines with water, to make carbonic acid… Which is not paricularly friendly to plankton…

  2. Mr. Motl,
    The place where I live was covered with a 500 m thick ice sheet a mere 15Ky ago, just yesterday in the geological timescale. So yes, obviously I’m worried about changes in climate conditions even in case they should not depend on us (which I doubt).
    If the “laws of nature” should point to the direction of human kind extinction, it’d be legal for us to amend them, or at least give a try. (I’m joking of course, changing a climate trend has nothing to do with amending gravity).


    But most likely, all what we have to do is to curb CO2.


    1. So You are saing, that with no evidence at all (with only your doubts) for anthropogenic climachange You are (who are “We”?) about to curb CO2.
      Well mister good luck. Consider not breathing, [Abridged by host]

      1. Sir, this is your second unpleasant and uninformed post in three days — and this one was actually crude, and offensive to some readers. I have therefore edited it. Please keep in mind this is a public forum, and please be polite, or put your opinions elsewhere.

  3. I think its about time we start fighting and i think its not in the hands of scientists it needs a political well ( collective) .

  4. No sorry, the key question here is really whether there is something like climate change or not.
    Having cleared that point, then even if we could not prove conclusively that it is due entirely (or partly) to anthropogenic factors, we would still be in trouble right ?
    I mean, if we discover tomorrow that there is an asteroid on a collision course with the earth, would you dismiss it with a shrug since it is clearly not our fault ?

    1. Gmack, if the observed change, whatever it is, were not caused by the humans, then it obviously had to occur very often – or all the time – during the last 4.7 billion years and it is obviously nothing to be excited or worried about, right? In the same way, it would also be irrational to try to “prevent” it from happening because that would be nothing less than a war against the laws of Nature. After all, the latter conclusion is mostly right even if the human contribution is significant.

  5. “With something that has enormous policy implications, such as climate change, there was some concern among serious scientists that error and/or group-think bias could set in within even a large community.”

    Yeah, but there was no *rational* reason to think that. To believe that the data could be wrong at this point, somebody would have to believe that 1) it somehow could have slipped past the biggest scientific review process ever, 2) there is something happening in the global climate that is counteracting the basic physical process of carbon dioxide trapping more heat, and 3) all the second-order effects we’re seeing – melting Arctic sea ice, rising tropopause, etc. – aren’t happening, or can be explained by something else. Frankly, there hasn’t been a good reason to hold out on accepting the basic fact that the planet is warming since the 1990s. I’ll spot people a few more years on causality, but not a lot.

  6. Prof Matt Strassler,

    “I’m glad you do,” Bradley said, gesturing for the kids to put their hands down. The only person talking today would be Ted Bradley. “But you may not know that global warming is going to cause a very sudden shift in our climate. Maybe just a few months or years, and it will suddenly be much hotter or much colder. And there will be hordes of insects and diseases that will take down wonderful trees.”

    “What kind of insects?” one kid asked.

    “Bad ones,” Bradley said. “The ones that eat trees, that worm inside them and chew them up.” He wiggled his hands, suggesting the worming in progress.

    “It would take a insect a long time to eat a whole tree,” a girl offered.

    “No it wouldn’t!” Bradley said. “That’s the trouble. Because warming means lots and lots of insects will come-a plague of insects-and they’ll eat the trees fast!”

    Page 402 of, The State of Fear by Michael Crichton

    At the time I was looking at our Province and the affect of the Pine Beetle infestation.

    So it was the idea of a fiction writer, writing about environmental terrorism, “State of Fear by Michael Crichton.” It was contained in his words that it had me looking at what was happening in nature. Even to this day I do not weigh in so as to make a judgement, yet, I still ask for evidence.

    Cosmic particle collisions were going on around us. I wanted to know how this would affect our planet.

    So thank you for the additional information as I go through it.


  7. I think this report is made out to be more than it is. It confirms that there has been global warming – but most skeptics (at least the skeptic scientists) have never disputed this. The big dispute, what the whole global warming debate is about, is how much of the increase can be attributed to human influence. Mind you again, most skeptics don’t even deny that humans caused SOME of the global warming, but the question is HOW MUCH? How much of the global warming can be attributed to humans, and how much to other causes is where all the science lies. That is the key question. It is not enough to say “we pumped some gases into the atmosphere, these gases trapped heat, and therefore we caused all the warming”. You have to calculate exactly how much of the warming is caused by our activity. In science we should deal with numbers, not just vague statements. And this report doesn’t affect this key issue:

    “What Berkley Earth has not done is make an independent assessment of how much of the observed warming is due to human actions, Richard Muller acknowledged.”

    But I’m very happy they made a reliable assessment of the data. I’m looking forward to their plans of addressing the global warming of the oceans, since they cover around 3/4 of the surface of the earth, they can significantly affect the amount of warming. So once we have a final number for how much the earth has warmed, we can proceed then to answer the much more important question of how much of it was anthropogenic.

    1. Exactly right. In fact, at this point, only warming of the land, not warming of the oceans, has been studied by the Berkeley Earth Team. But obviously, if the data analysis that says that warming was occurring had been faulty, they wouldn’t go on to the harder question of determining what role humans are playing. So this is step one — an important one, since there were nasty skeptics out there — but step one. It’s all in that two-page summary that everyone should read.

    2. I think the question of how much is anthropogenic is a bit of a red herring. The effects of the warming are dependent on the full warming, not only the anthropogenic part even if they turn out not to be essentially the same.

      What effects relevant to humans the warming will have is the next question to answer, IMO.

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