According to Wikipedia, the game 52 Pickup requires at least one player who is familiar with the game and one player who wants to be initiated into the game. The first player, as “dealer”, throws the entire deck into the air so the cards land strewn on the floor. The other player must then pick them up. Other card games sometimes transpose into this game. For an example, a child falling behind in Go Fish or Crazy Eights, or bored by a never-ending game of War, may simply declare “52 Pickup!” and sweep all the cards off the table.
So it is interesting how, on the Watts Up site, a list of 52 highly miscellaneous climate-related statements related to “the hiatus” are strewn about randomly, as if by a petulant child losing a game. Your correspondent dutifully picks them up, but only because a prominent scientist appears to have been misled by this trick among others, and is in turn misleading others.
The spreadsheet I was keeping while plowing through this mess is available for your perusal.
In an op-ed on climate for the Wall Street Journal, Steven E. Koonin demonstrates some understanding of where climate scientists sit in this awkward moment:
My training as a computational physicist—together with a 40-year career of scientific research, advising and management in academia, government and the private sector—has afforded me an extended, up-close perspective on climate science. Detailed technical discussions during the past year with leading climate scientists have given me an even better sense of what we know, and don’t know, about climate. I have come to appreciate the daunting scientific challenge of answering the questions that policy makers and the public are asking.
The crucial scientific question for policy isn’t whether the climate is changing. That is a settled matter: The climate has always changed and always will. Geological and historical records show the occurrence of major climate shifts, sometimes over only a few decades. We know, for instance, that during the 20th century the Earth’s global average surface temperature rose 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
Nor is the crucial question whether humans are influencing the climate. That is no hoax: There is little doubt in the scientific community that continually growing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, due largely to carbon-dioxide emissions from the conventional use of fossil fuels, are influencing the climate. There is also little doubt that the carbon dioxide will persist in the atmosphere for several centuries. The impact today of human activity appears to be comparable to the intrinsic, natural variability of the climate system itself.
Well, that last sentence tends to stretch matters a bit. A number of things are going on that are downright unusual, and there’s no two ways about that anymore. However, it certainly depends where you direct your eyes.
And it appears that Koonin has been directing his eyes at dubious sources for aspects of science outside the strictly computational. Look at the carefully chosen litany of half-truths that follow: the hiatus, Antarctic sea ice, the tropical “hot spot” in the upper troposphere.
His conclusion is reasonable enough taken literally:
Individuals and countries can legitimately disagree about these matters, so the discussion should not be about “believing” or “denying” the science. Despite the statements of numerous scientific societies, the scientific community cannot claim any special expertise in addressing issues related to humanity’s deepest goals and values. The political and diplomatic spheres are best suited to debating and resolving such questions, and misrepresenting the current state of climate science does nothing to advance that effort.
but he doesn’t acknowledge how far what we are doing today is from reasonable, which, obviously, is a problem, and his approach is clearly intended to succor those who are far from inclined to take some policy risks toward a solution.
One might have guessed his insouciance from his focus on classic denier red herrings (although there are legitimate concerns about models he raises – his concerns are certainly not ill-informed on that score – but that’s for another essay, hopefully).
That all said, I was especially struck by this assertion Koonin made:
Yet the models famously fail to capture this slowing in the temperature rise. Several dozen different explanations for this failure have been offered, with ocean variability most likely playing a major role. But the whole episode continues to highlight the limits of our modeling, with ocean variability most likely playing a major role.
The usual sort of response starts bubbling into my brain, “er, I suppose… sort of.. but…”
And then I find myself startled. “Wait, what?”
“Several dozen different explanations for this failure have been offered”???
Where did this come from?
I believe it came from no less than diligent Blog Science specialist HockeySchtick, by way of Tony Watts in an article entitled “List of excuses for ‘the pause’ in global warming is now up to 52” (archived here)
According to HockeySchtick, there are no less than 52 “excuses” for the hiatus. But as we will see, an “excuse” does not rise to what an actual scientist like Koonin ought to take for an explanation.
ABOUT THOSE 50 WAYS
Yes, I looked at every one of them, and it was something of a slog. The intention is to test the claim that “dozens of hypotheses” have been offered.
Let’s start by eliminating the ones which aren’t science at all. That amounts to 20 of the 52.
The Dot Earth Piece
No less than of the 52 “excuses” come from a single “Dot Earth” blog entry by Andy Revkin, and basically amount to things scientists say in passing that HockeySchtick is unable to put into context. Or, in the case of Karl Wunsch, that almost nobody can put into context.
(If I had a chance for a New Rule, it might well be Karl Wunsch Does Not Talk to Reporters. Sheesh.)
It’s not a terrible article but it’s not very enlightening either. Just a grab bag of comments. That’s almost a fifth of HS’s stock of “excuses”. He’s off to a bad start and I won’t examine them in detail. For a telling instance, consider “Ultimately, the challenge is to come up with the parsimonious theory [of the ‘pause’] that fits all of the data” (Andrew Dessler)
Does that sound to you like an “excuse”?
The Revkin piece alone spawns points 40, 42,43,44,45,46,47,48,49 and 50 (but not 41); all are casual observations by researchers, not explanations for anything.
There are a few more in a similar vein, random snatches of science-speak mockable by, um, people who like to mock that sort of thing.
- # 13 (A Guardian Piece, on data)
- #23 (Comments by Pauchari to Press Conference)
- # 31 (A Justin Gillis NYT piece, ruing in passing a failed observation satellite launch)
- #19, and
- #22 op-eds at different ends of the spectrum
- # 35 (A humdrum report of a scientist talk in a small local paper) quoted so-called excuse: “to look at our models and observations and ask questions”. The temerity of that evasion!
Blog Science and Think Tank Noise
# 20 #21 #27 # 29
So, let’s see. Maybe there aren’t 52. We’ve eliminated 20 off the bat. But are there really 32 peer reviewed theories of the hiatus?
Well, what could the hiatus be? It’s either internal variation (how the system behaves) or forcing (what environment the system faces).
Candidate forcings are:
- Solar activity (decreasing)
- Combustion-related aerosol (increasing)
- (CFCs decreasing, but this forcing is already modeled)
- Stratospheric water vapor
- (VOCs from pine forests might increase with temperature – speculation in press release, not supported by research, small)
- (Global clear-sky “brightening/dimming” – subsumed in other theories)
- Vulcanism (increasing)
The CFC one and the pine forest one have little explanatory power. The global brightening one is eliminated as a variant on the stratospheric water vapor. (The pine forest one is merely posited as a modest feedback, and not on hiatus timescales, and in the press release, not in the actual study.) So we have really got four theories.
Also (sort of) in this category is #41, which argues that the cause of the hiatus is NOT aerosols, which hardly counts as an excuse, does it?
Internal Variability Ideas
If it’s not forcing, it must be some sloshing around within the system. For the most part it’s fairly literal sloshing – the parts of the system that have the right time scales are all in the ocean.
Much of the variability is in the equatorial zone, for reasons a bit too complicated to get into here. So there are a number of overlapping and somewhat competing papers attempting to analyze and report on what the equatorial and tropical ocean is doing. It is here that the dataset is relatively weak, and the physics relatively complex. When people complain in the press about inadequate data or too much complexity, they are referring to identifying the internal temperature and salinity structure of the ocean, and extrapolating it.
Papers on this turf which HS refers to are:
2, 8, 16, 17, 24, 25, 26, 28, 30, 33, and 38.
Needless to say there is much overlap and contention here, but these are all aspects of the same issue. On ocean variability, the physics is well-known, but the data to set up the initial values are poorly known and the simulations are expensive. So there are no real conceptual issues here. And I would call these all facets of the same problem. But there’s enough argument here that offhand we may have to give credit for two or three theories being active. So generously that brings us to an “excuse” count of seven.
Related Science, Tangential Science, and Attempted Science
Model Initialization Ideas
Especially mockable (” We forgot to cherry-pick models in tune with natural variability” is HS’s summary of one of these) are #15, #36 and #51, but in my opinion these are the most scientifically exciting papers kicked off by the hiatus.
So much of the stumbling block is in the ocean not because we don’t understand the ocean but because we don’t measure it very well. But the observed history does give information about the internal state. So we can go back and put that information into the models. At that point they aren’t pure climate models. Rather, they are more like weather models of the deep ocean. We want to see if the models COULD capture the variation that we see if we DO use hindsight. What’s more, that hindsight can help us set up our models for future projections.
So while we may be at the edge of the uninitialized ensemble, it remains plausible that with better initial data the models would have performed well. Again, I think this is the most exciting aspect of computational climatology today, and rather than scaring people off with harassment, we want to be attracting the young Karl Wunsches out there to pick this problem to focus on.
I suppose, though not a theory, you could count this as an “excuse”. (eight) Call it the data travesty. (That word has a longish history in this regard, you know.)
I can’t resist noting that we’d be further along in this line of investigation if a sensible amount were expended on collecting the data.
Is this an “excuse” for the hiatus? Well, you can see how they’d think that, though I don’t think of it that way. It brings the models into agreement with observations. Let’s be generous and award it on a close decision. Eight.
Time Series Analysis
Some people love to play around with climate statistics, and not all of them are bloggers, so we have some peer reviewed papers that do that. Whatever they say (and some of them seem to me to be badly wrong) they can’t really be considered explanations or excuses. They’re just, right or wrong, analyses.
These are #9, #12, #14, #34 and #52.
Of these, I think only #12 (Lovejoy) is worthy of attention, unless you really want to see how awful Judith Curry’s actual work is, in which case I’d commend your careful attention to #9.
But even in the case of #12, it has no, and pretends to no, explanatory power regarding climate phenomenology. The rest of them fill in the gap between the science and the nonsense, roughly straddling the line. So for the list of “explanations”? Zero additions here.
A distinct category needs to be reserved for #5, Cowtan and Way, which carefully examines averaging over the rapidly warming Arctic, providing a correction that removes some of the hiatus. And we’ll give them that one as an “excuse”. Nine.
The remaining papers attempt to balance all the other phenomena into an inclusive theory. In the case of Gavin Schmidt’s #10: the use of the word “coincidence” is mocked. An easy shot, but in fact, it seems likely that several cooling forcings are at work; they coincide. There’s also #32 (and arguably #3 and #39, already accounted for) that attempt to parcel out the forcing to various phenomena. Still nine “excuses”
Last but not least, I special mention for #37, which refers to exactly the same paper as #31. And the final count is nine.
SO IS THE CLIMATE REALLY SENDING US A REASSURING MESSAGE WITH THIS HIATUS?
There’s much to say on this. For now let me be brief while I try to get this gruesome taxonomy off my plate.
Well, there are several forcings, and they vary. So sometimes (about half the time) they’ll be predominantly in a cooling state. If they are, then that would move the global temperature trajectory a bit cooler. Occasionally substantially so. And that does appear to be the case, not just from the global temperature record, but from direct study of the forcings.
And there is the second part, which is commonly called internal variability, which on this time scale refers to ocean dynamics. Indeed we haven’t had a major El Nino since 1998, which can in a very elementary sense be seen to bring the trend line down a bit.
Why this is happening is a complicated question. The connection to climate change may or may not be important. Unlike the atmosphere, the ocean is relatively data-poor. But we know it played a role just by separating out the El Nino signal in various ways, and some of our best scientists are parsing through the details and finding useful ways to put the models to work.
And then there is the fact that the active deniers pick the ugliest way of comparing data and models, yielding a misleading picture of how far they have diverged.
It still seems more than likely that this divergence is not only smaller than is made out by carefully selected records, but also impermanent. Even if we didn’t have the evidence of ice melting, sea level rising, ocean acidification, and shifts in weather patterns, it’s really too early to take solace in the earth’s slow change in temperature, and certainly not to gloat at the failures of science, because uncertainty is not our friend.
Being generous, the number of distinct “excuses”, that is, arguments proffered by the scientific community, that the hiatus is not a refutation of climate science, among the fifty-two candidates, is something like nine, of which very few pairs are mutually contradictory.
The number of actual hypotheses in play is best described as four distinct variations in forcing plus a tangle of ocean dynamics ideas. The ocean theories are not all mutually compatible but the forcing ones can all be happening at the same time. “Coincidence”, that is, in the literal sense of coinciding.
That is, we’ve identified five possible sources for a slowdown, one of them with complex and contested details, and we have eliminated none of them from play at present.
More to the point, in the grand scheme of things, this hiatus, while big enough to require explanation, is far from big enough to send us back to the drawing board. The very success of weather modeling demonstrates that we know what we are talking about.
HockeySchtick’s sloppy, incoherent list proves, on the other hand, that he’s willing to read a great deal of material without ever bothering to pull it together into some sort of coherent understanding. It only took me a few hours to categorize it and boil it down.
The muddle, I suspect, is “not a bug but a feature”.
The sense of overwhelming complexity is what the denier hobbyist wants; somewhere in that confusion perhaps one could imagine that heat causes CO2, and therefore the CO2 continues rising, but it isn’t heating any more. Or something.
DOES CLIMATE SCIENCE HAVE SKILL?
You can’t say a science is incoherent on the basis of trying to present it as incoherently as possible.
I commend, to Watts and HockeySchtick, the Principle of Charity. Without it, they will make no progress in understanding the material.
But let’s be fair. A handful of explanations may not make a deck of cards, but they are more than we are used to. But they aren’t mutually contradictory.
The defense says “He wasn’t there. Even if he was there, he didn’t do it. And even if he did do it, it was an accident. And even if it was deliberate, it was self-defense.” These are inconsistent theories. The prosecution says “He was there, he did it, purposefully and unprovoked.” These are consistent. That doesn’t make them right, but it’s no grounds for mockery if they hold together.
DOES KOONIN TAKE BLOG SCIENCE SERIOUSLY?
It sure looks like it. I presume that this list is Koonin’s source for the “dozens of theories” point? Is there any other source making this claim?
It this half-baked, poorly thought-ought, childish nonsense something for a major scientist to be advocating in a major press outlet?
I would say it’s obviously not.
UPDATE 9/26/14: See also http://blogs.reading.ac.uk/weather-and-climate-at-reading/2014/has-global-warming-taken-a-holiday/