“Global warming standstill?” Leo Hickman collates some sanity

A Met Office model revision found its way into the skeptic-o-sphere a couple of days back and, from there, onto some BBC news outlets. Predictable cries of “warming standstill!” ensued.

Guardian environment correspondent Leo Hickman has started collating information on the fallout – it’s a great thread. The sanest quote, for me, from Prof Chris Rapley, professor of climate science at University College London:

I despair of the way data such as this is translated as ‘global warming has stopped’! Global mean temperatures – whether measured or predicted – are not the issue. What matters is the energy balance of the planet and the changes that an energy imbalance will drive in the climate system – as well as the consequences for humans. 90% of the energy imbalance enters the ocean and is not visible to the global mean surface temperature value. The continuing rise in sea level demonstrates ongoing energy accumulation in the ocean (as well as a contribution from melting land ice). Even if the global mean temperature were to remain unchanged, if the geographic patterns of temperature and rainfall change, the consequences will still be potentially severe. We only need to look at what is going on in Australia at this very moment.

Yet the damage to public perception is already done, as this news audio clip demonstrates (where I first heard the story): “The Met Office now says it no longer expects global temperatures to rise between now and 2017. Climate skeptics say this shows the Met Office previously exaggerated its predictions of global warming.” This easy damage is impossible to undo, and perhaps could only be stopped by news outlets adopting clear policies for vetting science stories such as this. But will they?

Comments:

  1. Well, apart from Professor Rapley's comments, which are cogent and very much to the point, what you at P3 could say is 'We all hope that the skeptics are right. Certainly the length of the current plateau in atmospheric temperatures has given hope to many and recent work on the sensitivity of the atmosphere to increased CO2 concentrations provides more reason and another avenue for a somewhat undeserved escape from our own inability to control our excesses. However, we would be delinquent in not mentioning that the stakes are high--a resumption of warming and even slightly higher sensitivity than now being discussed could have very damaging consequences, especially in the developing world. The margin for error is low. Given our level of emissions at this point and their projected upwards climb, even a low value for sensitivity won't stop the brute force effect of massive increases in emissions as China, India and the rest of the developing world strive to attain lifestyles similar to our own. The worst of the weather we have seen in the past few years, while not attributable (probably) to climate change, is a sobering preview of possible coming attractions.
    We all hope the skeptics are right--but we see some of the shortcuts they took in their reasoning processes to get to their answers and we honestly think we used better math in coming up with our more pessimistic conclusions."

    • Certainly the length of the current plateau in atmospheric temperatures has given hope to many

      No not certainly. The recent plateau says nothing about the climate's response to our continual dumping of GHGs in the atmosphere.

      I will completely agree with the sentiment that I wish the 'skeptics' we correct in their assessment of sensitivity to GHG. My future would be brighter if they were correct.

      • "The recent plateau says nothing about the climate’s response to our continual dumping of GHGs in the atmosphere."

        Exactly right, just like warming trends, polar ice melt, and so-called extreme weather events like Sandy, they say nothing about the climate’s response to our continual dumping of GHGs in the atmosphere. Your statement above agrees with what the climate deniers have been saying for years.

    • Dan, as a Lukewarmer I think we are seeing the planet's response to CO2 emissions. Arctic summer ice melt, sawtooth (but slight) increase in global temperatures, warming in Northern latitudes, slight shifting in precipitation patterns.

      Where (I think) I differ from you is that I don't expect things to get dramatically worse until about 2075, when emissions just get so insanely huge that carbon sinks can't cope. Then I expect a fairly rapid rise in temperatures, moderate SLR and a stronger reaction from large ice masses.

      I think atmospheric sensitivity is low. But it exists. And if we do indeed match my gloomy forecasts for energy consumption, when we are using six times as much energy as today, the world will pay.

      My 'beef' with you is that you're crying wolf prematurely. But history will look at one of us unkindly for the type of conversations we're having today. Guess we'll see.

      • I think atmospheric sensitivity is low.

        Care to put a number on that? is it 1 degree Celsius? 2 degrees? or perhaps 0.5 degrees? Low is vague enough.

        Presumably you'll want me to give a number as well. Personally I don't feel qualified to come up with my own number so I'll stick with the IPCC's range of 2-4.5 degrees Celsius, while acknowledging that the upper bound is less constrained than the lower bound.

        My ‘beef’ with you is that you’re crying wolf prematurely.

        Do you have some specific examples? Personally I don't see how accepting the mainstream scientific opinion on the issue can (or should) be seen as 'crying wolf prematurely.'

    • Hi Dan,

      I certainly don't want to get in a fight about this here. I've been in enough of them.

      I think sensitivity will probably come in right around 2C at the end of the day. And the 'you' I refer to having a beef with is a collective thee, not a personal one. Specifically, I think the whole Xtreme Weather meme is sabotaging efforts to engage seriously with climate change. As were previous claims regarding malaria, etc.

      Like I said, history will judge one of our camps harshly. I hope it's yours--not because I want so much to be right, but because if I am, the problem is not as disastrous. We'll see.

  2. Absolutely, I desperately hope we luck out and scoot along lower bounds of some of the predictions. Who wouldn't? I'm not sure hoping for that makes for good policy; as it happens, if we don't luck out given that collectively we're increasing emission rates, we are seriously screwed.

    But the point for me was more wondering how how skeptic voices have been successful getting on some new mainstream news sources in the UK - I don't recall hearing anything quite so "views differ on shape of Earth" before on the beeb, though perhaps I haven't been paying attention.

    "... and we honestly think we used better math in coming up with our more pessimistic conclusions."

    It's not even doing better math; compare to the GWPF story that quickly got out there. It's just dumb and wrong-headed in the same way these stories always are: short term trend short term trend short term trend. It's the really really basic 'temps dropping in March doesn't mean Spring isn't coming' point. Not rocket science and not about someone having slightly better maths.

    The Spring comparison only fails in that there's more room for improving our physical understanding of the climate system than of seasonal temperature change, but not much. Many people claiming 'climate standstill' - as in the 6 music news story - say organisations like the Met Office have previously exaggerated. That's a very different claim to arguing over model structure, physics or even basic stats. It's an accusation of malfeasance and I'm completely flummoxed as to why the BBC thinks it's OK to report it verbatim.

    • The BBC's climate - and indeed science - reporting has seemed to me to have declined with the increasing use of David Shukman. He's nowhere near as good as Black, who was good but not fantastically brilliant.

      Black learned over time that the septics were to be increasingly ignored, and it seems that, at best, Shukman will need to re-learn that. At worst of course, he could be in the "controvery's good" camp.

      This shouldn't even have made the news. It's an annual update to an experimental system.

  3. The trend established in the late 20th century continues in the 21st:
    http://tamino.wordpress.com/2012/12/13/global-temperature-update/

    Lordy. Even here.

  4. Hickman's 'verdict' is sort-of OK, but this is curious: "the Met Office should have press-released it on the day (Christmas Eve) it was published on its website. Instead, it gave the impression that it wished to "bury" the news, which, in turn, was predictably seized upon by its critics."

    Really? So everyone working on model development should either press release every update or have some sort of internal check to see if they think it might trigger the flying monkeys and thus require a pre-bunk? Perhaps this update is important enough to warrant such a press release, but I'm not sure one should conclude the Met Office is at fault based on how the story has subsequently played out.

    Not to mention, it'd have made little difference to how 'critics' spun the story. It would always be the same story: if a model update produced an upward revision, there'd be a deafening silence.

    And looking at the original Met Office page I see two things right under my nose. At the top: "Forecasts are experimental, so at this early stage of development skill levels vary from place to place and for different variables."

    Second, the backcasting 'fit' to existing data which, on the 5-10 year timescale that's caused all the controversy, are clearly not so useful. The article the GWPF pointed to that did the first comparison took that out: "I’ve edited the images to remove the distracting red overlay on the originals." Distracting in that it clearly shows short-term trend-fitting isn't something the model's particularly useful for yet, hence `experimental'.

    I've just submitted my first paper, waiting to see if peers will laugh at it. It's abstract, with some very experimental little models in. I can't begin to imagine what it would be like attempting to be experimental in a field so politicised as climate science, or having to expend careful thought on how results - however dripping in caveats, which will of course always be completely ignored - may be spun.

    • I agree with Leo Hickman's "the Met Office should have press-released it on the day (Christmas Eve) it was published on its website", but he should have explained because 'it gave an opportunity for people to create the impression that the Met Office wanted to bury bad news'. The Met Office should have known that inevitably this would be jumped on and spun into something much greater than it is and should have ensured that responsible, but lazy, media had a balanced perspective from the start. Even their belated press-release seems weak to me though. They should be doing a better job of communicating.

      • Some interesting additional explanations put out today by the Met Office:
        http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/research/news/decadal-forecasting

        If anything it goes too far the other way from their original press release - I wonder how many people will do more than glance at this and actually read through the dense text.

    • If they're going to remove the confidence range from the graph, they're going to ignore any concurrent statements about the prediciton - especially when the whole point of drawing attention to it is to try and descredit the science.

      You only have to see how people will quote mine a preliminary draft to try and get a political point across.

    • Dan Olner: 'Distracting in that it clearly shows short-term trend-fitting isn't something the model's particularly useful for yet ...'

      The new model's retro forecasts look quite good on that showing. (Too good?) What's most distracting is that the graph's caption (still: 17 days and much babble later) says 'Previous predictions ... are shown as white curves'. Previous? That confused me for hours. I thought it actually meant 'previous'. Is this some special scispeak usage, meaning something like 'would-have-been-previous-had-we-had-the-new-model-back-then', or is it a thinko?

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  6. In the process of pinpointing arguments for or against, we have rather lost sight of the lag between emissions and full consequences. I've been told that what we are seeing now is largely consequences of emissions from a couple of decades ago. That discredits all this fine tuning in the service of draining meaning from what is indeed an international crisis of epic proportions.

    Meanwhile, back at the ranch, have any of you looked at what is happening in the Arctic? Bit weird to have breakup in January, innit? Mentioned in the color map item here at P3 (just look at the pink on those poles, per Hansen) and at:
    http://climatechangepsychology.blogspot.com/2013/01/extremely-unusual-arctic-sea-ice-goings.html

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