Tag Archives: RealClimate

Non-technical Comment For Curry's Technical Thread

This comment of mine in reply to Judith Curry’s “Pierrehumbert on infrared radiation and planetary temperatures” might or might not survive the night at Climate Etc: 😎

Well, if you are wondering whether any progress in understanding of an issue like this can be made on the blogosphere you can’t leave this thread as purely technical can you?

raypierre is the perfect example of what has gone wrong between mainstream climate scientists and the rest of the world, starting from the “blogosphere”. One can be the smartest kid this side of the Virgo Supercluster of galaxies, but if in one’s mindset questions are considered as instances of lèse majesté and examples for the general public are routinely simplified in the extreme, so as to make them pointless, well, one will only be able to contribute to the hot air: because the natural reaction of most listeners will be to consider whatever one says (even the good stuff) as just a lot of vaporous grandstanding.

From this point of view, SoD‘s work should be more than highly commended.

Incredibly Accurate Climate Forecast For 2011

(no £33M supercomputer was harmed in the making of this blog)

  • All atmospheric, oceanic, glacial, geological and public-health phenomena with any kind of negative impact will be linked to (anthropogenic) global warming with no shortage of experts confirming how we’d known that all along, and of computer models showing how obvious those consequences have always been
  • No atmospheric, oceanic, glacial, geological and public-health phenomena lacking any kind of negative impact will be linked to (anthropogenic) global warming
  • Romm will continue his fishing expeditions, hoping this or that weather-related mass killing can be taken advantage of, in order to promote the concept of anthropogenic global warming
  • Hansen will get (willingly) arrested once or twice, ready to proclaim 2011 as the warmest year ever, mostly due to extremes of heat in faraway places devoid of people and weather stations
  • McKibben will get even thinner, and just as ineffectual, while identifying new enemies forever closer to himself
  • RealClimate will keep its absurdist censorship policy, and in post after post the Team will “demonstrate” their intellectual superiority
  • Skeptical Science will keep building climate salad surgeries to no end, sprinkling statements of various robustness with seemingly limitless references to the Literature, to be used by the lazy and most scientifically-ignorant among its readership (i.e. the journalists)
  • The Climate Change Rapid Response Team will say nothing of relevance that hasn’t been already said
  • The nastiest criticisms by rabid AGWers will be thrown in the direction of Curry
  • Revkin will keep reaffirming his absolute confidence in mainstream AGW science despite the evidence to the contrary presented in Revkin’s blog
  • Pielke Jr will be distracted by other things, thereby avoiding Revkin’s problem
  • The IPCC will make sure nothing really is changed in its procedures or results
  • McIntyre will be made privy to secret information showing how deeply unpopular in the mainstream climate community is anything remotely linked to McIntyre
  • Goddard (S.) will publish his 25,000th blog post
  • Goddard (NASA’s) will discover that recent thermometer readings must be adjusted upwards, and past ones downwards, for purely scientific reasons of course
  • Watts will be criticized (for being Watts and) for providing web space to people with strange theories
  • ScienceOfDoom will busy himself with explaining the first law of thermodynamics (again!) thereby missing all the fun
  • Connolley will not notice the rest of the planet
  • Tamino will pop up once around here and other places, posting an inane, canned comment that could be written in reply to any other blog post written by anybody on any topic
  • Some people with a very nasty mindset will suggest that the glowing comments to Tamino’s posts might as well have been written by people sharing the same identical DNA with Tamino
  • The recipient of the 2010 Edward Davis Wood, Jr.’s Climate “Blogging Turkey” Award will sink to new lows
  • The art of obfuscating FOI and non-FOI answers will be perfected by the CRU and the BBC
  • Popular media will be filled by photographic reports about a changing climate, with no picture showing anything remotely connected to climate change in a proper scientific way
  • Popular media will be filled by countless breakthroughs in climate science showing how worse it is than we thought
  • Scientifically speaking, there will not be any breakthrough in climate science
  • A very large number of well-known and otherwise knowledgeable scientists will make complete asses of themselves by appearing on TV and in print with idiotic regurgitations of mainstream AGW theory, mostly inconsistent with the very statements made by the IPCC
  • If the weather will keep cold, a major European scientific institution will break ranks with mainstream AGW theory before the summer
  • Popular interest will wane as most people will be titillated about the 2012 “end of the world” instead
  • The EU will find new ways to use climate change to transfer money to the rich, and to China
  • China will happily go along the EU cash-transfer schemes
  • The US Congress and President will strike a united front in protecting climate-change-related pork (money not meat)

And finally for the real world…

  • It will rain, otherwise it will be sunny, foggy, cloudy or overcast. It will snow in places, with sandstorms in other places (or the same ones). It will be cold, then hot, then cold again, or viceversa more or less overall. Some droughts, some floods, and places experiencing drizzle. Unprecedented weather will be experienced for the 200,000th year running, with lack of morals among humans indicated as main culprit for the 200,000th time as well
  • Many people will die of poverty in weather-related events around the world, with the keys being “poverty” and “weather” but all action concentrated on “climate change”
  • Children will keep dying of soot, while the world concerns itself with CO2 emissions only
  • Elderly people will keep dying of fuel poverty, while the world concerns itself to increase fuel prices in order to reduce CO2 emissions

Raypierre Still Doesn't Get It

The guys at RealClimate have absolutely zero debating skills. That much has been known for a long time and has just been confirmed once again with a relatively weak blog containing incredible statements such as

Do the above issues suggest “politicized science”, deliberate deceptions or a tendency towards alarmism on the part of IPCC? We do not think there is any factual basis for such allegations

(stand-up comedy shouldn’t be far)

(yes, that blog is weak because it pivots on a mere handful of arguments, all of them at risk of being shown fallacious. The first one that goes, will carry the rest of the blog down with itself)

Those minimalistic skills are now spreading elsewhere, with the most simplistic of logical reasoning apparently beyond the grasp of “raypierre”, aka Raymond T Pierrehumbert. Next to Andy Revkin’s “Does an Old Climate Critique Still Hold up?” I had originally posted the following comment of Feb 10, 9:09EST (also available in my “Lacis, The IPCC, Simple Physics And Post-normal “Science”“)

34. Maurizio Morabito – February 10th, 2010 – 9:09 am
[…] (c) I’d suggest people drop the “Greenhouse effect is simply physics” argument. Simple physics shows that warm air moves upwards, and a room’s floor is generally colder than its ceiling. However, mountaintops are generally colder than sea-level locations. Why? Because the free atmosphere is a complex system where you can’t just apply simple physics (for a different example: think of anti-oxydants’ wonders in Petri dishes and the failure to translate that into effective anti-aging treatments in the real world) […]

I do think that the Petri dish analogy made my point extremely clear. Alas, not to all…

80. raypierre – February 10th, 2010- 9:20 pm
34. Maurizio Morabito —

No, Maurizio, we should not drop the argument that “the Greenhouse Effect” is simply physics. It IS simply physics. What needs to happen instead is that you and people like you either (a) take the time to learn a little physics yourself, or (b) lacking time, at least defer to people who do know the physics. “a” is by far the preferable option.

For example, mountaintops are colder than the lower altitudes because of the simple physical principle that gases cool when they expand rapidly enough. Convection moves the air upwards fast enough that the air cools. This kind of thermodynamics is taught in most good high school physics classes, and its atmospheric relevance has been understood since shortly after Horace de Saussure’s landmark studies of mountain meteorology in the early 1800’s.

The fact that your comment was recommended by 6 readers so far speaks volumes about the scientific ignorance of many of the readers who support your position.

Why oh why would the Louis Block Professor in Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago feel it necessary to demean himself with the last paragraph above, totally undeserving any reply, I will never understand. Obviously though, a career in Geophysical and Atmospheric Sciences may prevent people like raypierre from taking the time to learn a little cellular physiology.

Somebody did try to re-iterate my point:

88. Harry Eagar – February 11th, 2010 – 7:45 am
raypierre, a big time, scientifically qualified alarmist, sez: ‘For example, mountaintops are colder than the lower altitudes because of the simple physical principle that gases cool when they expand rapidly enough.’

I live on a mountain, 10,000 feet high. I’m at 1,500 feet. True, it’s colder at the top, but it’s warmer at 7,000 than at 1,500 feet (most of the time).

Climate and weather are possibly more complex that people like Raypierre would like hoi polloi to know.

No way…help for Prof Pierrehumbert was at hand next day:

109. Ivan Carter – February 12th, 2010 – 7:40 am

[responding to Harry Eagar] Raypierre says that mountaintops are cooler than at the bottom based upon known (and incontrovertible) principle of physics, and this commenter calls him out because ‘mountaintops are colder than the bottom’ because sometimes in between (thru short term warmth rising, I think, some of the time), the air is warmer than at the bottom.

Pierre didn’t give a full analysis of mountain climate, nor was doing so relevant. He simply gave an example of one specific point, correctly stated and which the commenter himself backed up, that was then manipulated into yet another irrelevant but apparently appealing attack upon RayPierre and scientists!

It is what is done on here, often more subtly, however, over and over and over again […]

By the way, Ivan: to state the truism that climate and weather are more complex than the individual effects at play, does not mean “to attack the scientists” any more than to point to the Ediacaran fossils didn’t mean “to attack the scientists”…just those scientists that prevented our understanding of Precambrian fauna for 80 years

And now for my latest reply. I have no hope raypierre, Ivan Carter or anybody thinking they’re characters in a Fort Apache remake will understand any of it. You see, even if they have lacked the time so far, surely they have never even thought of deferring to anybody that knows anything about movies, or Precambrian fauna…

115. Maurizio Morabito – February 14th, 2010 – 3:07 pm
raypierre (86) and Ivan Carter (109): my original point was that you cannot simply take one effect observed in the lab (for example, the greenhouse effect) and state that it will work as-is in the real world. In the real world, other effects will “sum up” to it, and the end result will be whatever it will be.

The existence of a GH effect is the _starting_ point in the investigation of what happens to climate due to GHG emissions, so it _cannot_ be used to _terminate_ discussions about global warming.

Hence my request to drop it as an argument, just like the existence of gravity doesn’t mean that flying is impossible.

About Yamal

Non-casual readers already know I do not like to dwell into topics covered in great depth elsewhere. I will make a very short exception to that “policy”, simply because the McIntyre/Briffa story is too big.

Too big, that is, not to warrant some huge dose of skepticism before getting carried away with it.

We have a saying in Italian, “if they’re roses, they’ll bloom”. AKA “time will tell”.

As much as I admire McIntyre’s relentless quest to go always back to the original data, I am sure I am not the first one that has seen apparently-straight forward things turn around all of a sudden. There’s no reason to celebrate… if the Briffa reconstruction will implode, it will implode anyway.

Now we have a blog on the topic, by Gavin Schmidt at RealClimate, and a brief note by Briffa himself.

Gavin is his usual self, the worst enemy of AGW that is, with a blog post choked by its own sarcasm. Through the deep, rather undignified fog, one can get a glimpse of what appears to be a potentially strong riposte to Steve McIntyre (but with Schmidt’s emotions running so raw, I am afraid McIntyre will always have the upper hand).

Briffa is very calm and measured, therefore making his decision not to share the data sooner even more puzzling

Right now, it looks like there will be a “war of words” with claims and counterclaims. On that, I have no interest whatsoever. And too many people already are “jumping in” in ways that can only dent their credibility.

I might come back to the story after the battle. For now, this is my comment at RC:

Kudos to Briffa for having decided to “review the details of [McIntyre’s] work”.

Is it too much to state that most of what has happened, would not have happened had the data been made available upon (first) request?

On that topic, I believe that NASA changed its policy regarding space probes a decade ago or more, in order to avoid (crackpot) accusations of being in the business of airbrushing aliens out of the photos. That is why mission websites like MER’s _prominently_ show the just-received “raw images”, especially in the first days of the mission (please correct me if I am wrong).

Wouldn’t it therefore make sense to apply the same rules to all just-published papers, i.e. presenting the “raw data” to the visitor, rather than simply leaving it “available for anyone who cares to look”? Especially in a field such as climate change, where any accusation/finding is bound to elicit plenty of reaction.

Swanson's AGW Song, or How At RealClimate, It's Always Naivety Time…

Sometimes I ask myself if the RealClimate guys understand the implications of everything they publish on their site.

For example some time ago Gavin Schmidt more or less told the whole world that to him observations were of little interest apart than as a way to improve climate models (thereby denying the very possibility that climate models could be demonstrated false, under any circumstance).

Now it’s the turn of a guest blog by Kyle Swanson, encouraged and published by Raymond T. “Raypierre” Pierrehumbert. The stated intent of the blog is to show that Swanson and Tsonis’ recent paper about “Has the climate recently shifted?” has “very little” to do with Global Warming, of the anthropogenic variety obviously. But its actual practical consequences are more interesting.

(1) Andy Revkin through Roger Pielke Jr.’s blog notes that Swanson and Tsonis take off the steam yet again from anybody and everybody that tries to “portray global warming as an unfolding catastrophe here and now“.

That is, with RealClimate in tow, and after Swanson and Tsonis, we can yell out loud and clear that the scientific consensus says that all AGW-related troubles that we could be concerned about, they belong to the future.

Repeat with me: AGW as a matter of grave concern for the whole of humanity, is not happening. That is, there is no scientific justification at all to discuss AGW as an issue for the present instead of properly, as a risk management question involving some decades in the future.

(2) All this discussions about the recent “pause in warming” (in Swanson’s words…as if it had any meaning given the above) are ammunitions that will be used to argue against AGW once the warming resumes (eventually, it will…). If 10 years can’t say much in a direction, they cannot say much in the other direction either.

(3) In other words, all scientific discussions in climatology should confine themselves to the climate of the end of the 1970’s. Anything that has happened after that, it’s by definition too early to talk about.

(3) Raypierre tries at length to justify Tsonis’s words published in an interview. Among those:

if we don’t understand what is natural, I don’t think we can say much about what the humans are doing. So our interest is to understand — first the natural variability of climate — and then take it from there. So we were very excited when we realized a lot of changes in the past century from warmer to cooler and then back to warmer were all natural

I am afraid all “comments were taken out of context” (Raypierre’s defense) are excuses simply demolished by Swanson’s writing that:

humanity is poking a complex, nonlinear system with GHG forcing – and […] there are no guarantees to how the climate may respond

Repeat with me: We have little clue about the Earth’s climate will respond to anything, be it natural or man-made. The final result might be a cooling, a warming, or no much change at all.

And so about AGW, we should be spending time reflecting about the opportunity of reducing that “poking”, not on idiotic multidecadal projections of various degrees of warming.


Let me finish by noticing two details. First of all, in Swanson’s words presumably approved by Raypierre/RC, Global Warming (AGW) is now “the century-scale response to greenhouse gas emissions“. And I thought it was multidecadal? Not any longer: even 50 years of global cooling will be compatible with AGW.

But to conclude on a high note: the anti-skeptic RC filters of old don’t appear to have been heavily used this time. Who knows, it might even be a way to show that the RC folks are thinking of getting rid of their aburd fear for debating.

But don’t hold your breath about that…especially when they will realize what the stuff they publish actually means.

Behind Climate, Weather Is Still King

Twenty-third century historians debating who would be so anti-scientific as to associate an episode of extreme weather to climate, and especially to global warming, will have to look no further than two recent blogs on the recent Australian disaster:

A few things need to be firmly kept in mind:

With that in the background, let’s have a look at Brook’s work first. And it is not a pleasant one:

So, in Adelaide we have two freakishly rare extreme events happening with a 10 month period. How likely is that? Well, if the events are totally independent, we’d expect the joint likelihood of two such heatwaves (of 0.25% probability per year [the 2009 event] and 0.033% per year [2008 event], respectively), occurring within the same 12 month period, to happen about once every 1,200,000 years. Is that unlikely enough for you? But if there is ‘autocorrelation’ (dependencies between the two events due to a linked cause — such as climate change), this calculated probability is not valid.

If that isn’t a true example of why statistics have such a bad reputation (“lies, damned lies, and…”), then I do not know what is. And if that doesn’t show that Brook cannot properly talk about climate, as he doesn’t look like having even the faintest clue of what makes some days warmer than others, then I do not know what does.

And what does make some days warmer than others? Weather. By definition.

The 2009 Australian summer around Adelaide and Melbourne has seen some particularly hot days because of a peculiar weather pattern, with winds bringing hot, dry desert air towards the inhabited coast (there might have been also an intervening Foehn (warming) effect, but let’s keep that aside for the moment).

The underlying weather pattern has been described by the National Climate Centre at the Australian Government’s Bureau of Metereology:

The presence of a slow-moving high pressure system in the Tasman Sea, combined with an intense tropical low off the northwest coast of Western Australia and an active monsoon trough, provided the ideal conditions for hot tropical air to be directed over the southern parts of the continent

NASA’s Land Surface Temperature Anomaly picture reinforces this point: one can clearly see how warm air has been pushed towards Victoria, just as cool air towards Queensland. And an intervening band in the middle has then experienced whatever temperatures it usually experiences.

It’s just the same air movement. If you push “oceanic air” over Queensland, the existing “Queensland air” will move towards Victoria, and so on and so forth closing the high-pressure system circle somewhere to the East of Australia. You can get a similar result with a low-pressure system somewhere to the West too. If the two combine, so much more evident the Queensland cooling and Victoria warming. Does one need to be a veteran metereologist to understand such an easy point?

Even the briefest introduction to metereology and climatology should  make very clear to everybody how incredibly naïve and totally anti-scientific is the belief that “global warming” means hotter days in this or that part of the planet. In fact, the question Brook should have asked is: do that “slow-moving high-pressure system” and “intense tropical low” in those particular places, and that “monsoon trough”, have anything to do with (anthropogenic) climate change?

But of course Brook just about cannot get anywhere in that direction

the heatwave that struck Europe is 2003 provides a good way to illustrate my final point, thanks to a neat analysis published in Nature in 2004

Who knows, one day he may wake up to a 2007 paper, three years later that is, by Chase et al. published in the Geophysical Research Letters, asking “Was the 2003 European summer heat wave unusual in a global context?” and responding

Regression analyses do not provide strong support for the idea that regional heat or cold waves are significantly increasing or decreasing with time during the period considered here (1979–2003)

I am all for free speech, and Brook and the likes can keep on blaming perversity for the worst kind of climate change denial but there must be a point where they have to recognize how silly it is to appeal to science without understanding a iota of it.


Karoly’s contribution is of a different quality, with no absolute-weather-beginner mistaken mention of reality-divorced probabilities (Karoly even talks, briefly, about weather patterns…).

His point appears to be a rather old one though. Why would heatwaves be attributable to anthropogenic global warming? Because Karoly himself, with Braganza, managed some time ago to simulate observations using climate models that include “increasing atmospheric greenhouse gases and aerosols” (see his 2004 paper referred to in the blog).

Actually, to be more precise, what happened is that Karoly and Braganza were unable to simulate observations using “natural climate variations alone“. Perish the thought that the problem might have been an inappropriate definition of those “natural climate variations”…

In any case, given the apparent strength of Karoly’s convictions dating from 2004, one might start wondering why the Chair for the “Detection and Attribution: State of Play in 2009” (Parallel Session 9) in Copenhagen would be Ann Henderson-Sellers of all people. Who she? The one claiming in the session’s very description that

the detection and attribution story was incomplete [at the time of the IPCC AR4 in 2007] due to ‘Key Uncertainties’ listed by IPCC

and listing in a September 2008 article, among the seven “Serious inadequacies in climate change prediction that are of real concern

  • The rush to emphasize regional climate does not have a scientifically sound basis […]
  • Until and unless major oscillations in the Earth System (El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) and Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO) etc.) can be predicted to the extent that they are predictable, regional climate is not a well defined problem. […]

Notice how Henderson-Sellers goes on to say that “WGII is easily the weakest of the three reports. The reasons seem to be two-fold: (i) poor downscaling and (ii) the lack of a coherent methodology for impact study“.

I am sorry for Prof. Karoly but either Prof. Henderson-Sellers is very wrong on more than one point (and then what would she be doing as Chair of one session in Copenhagen?); or Karoly’s own 2004 work, and his present stance are just an example of what Henderson-Sellers describes as the rushed, scientifically unsound regional climate emphasis around a non-well-defined problem, plagued by poor downscaling and dealing with a climatic impact without a well-recognized methodology.

Does Karoly understand this problem? I think he does. Cue his large caveat about his large claim

Although formal attribution studies quantifying the influence of climate change on the increased likelihood of extreme fire danger in south-east Australia have not yet been undertaken, it is very likely that there has been such an influence

Karoly’s own language gymnastics is remarkable, with just about the right mix of “clear” and “likely” to pass most logic tests, in case things don’t turn up as expected. He’s not the first athlete to enter such a competition though.

Finally, it certainly doesn’t look too good when Karoly provides three papers linking “observed and expected increases in forest fire activity […] to climate change” but no mention of the lack of any comprehensive analysis (think of the absence of trends in fires around the Mediterranean region for example).


It is rather sad to see what started as the science of climate turning pretty much into a parody, with reports and explanations forever running after the latest disaster. Very simply, this cannot be right.

Is Gavin Schmidt The Best Thing Ever Happened To AGW Skeptics?

One wonders. As one has been wondering. For quite some time.

Financial Crisis to Climate Negotiators: DO NOT OVER-RELY ON MODELS!!!

The ongoing financial crisis can and will teach all of us many lessons, also in terms of climate and AGW. And no, I do not mean the rather naive made-up litany visible at ClimateProgress.

I refer to something much more profound, especially since there is now evidence that even the guys at RealClimate do not fully understand what they are dealing with, when they deal with climate models (even after loving models to death).

Consensus is in fact emerging about three advices that went missing during the build-up of the financial troubles:



I have prepared a couple of quick lists from three recent articles on the business pages of the International Herald Tribune (full attributed quotes at the bottom of the blog; and yes, do keep in mind those are from analysts that are experts in their field indeed).

First, what went wrong. It’s evident that plenty of it directly related to the climate debate:

  • Models gave a false sense of precision. They can now be seen as educated guess calculated to many decimal places. At the time, they appeared precise, and yet proceeded to ultimately demonstrate themselves as totally off base
  • Until the crisis, the field (of financial risk modeling) enjoyed a halo of academic credibility
  • In general, there was too much focus on quantitative issues and data and models. People did not know what to do with things that cannot generally modeled as a quantifiable risk
  • Risk managers were also too busy with models and bringing up data that could not be absorbed by senior management
  • Better modeling, more wisely applied, would have helped, but so would have common sense in senior management

Obviously, the danger lies in the fact that to confuse the model with the world is to embrace a future disaster, as humans (or the climate) do not just obey mathematical rules that can be modeled.

What should be done? I wish the negotiators in Poznan had the following list in mind:

  • Understand that risk is a function of behavior more than of models
  • Consider that risk management is about making big-picture choices, not just trying to prevent losses
  • Acknowledge that risk may mean different things, like hazard, threat, gamble, chance, possibility, or opportunity
  • Accept that models are useful as points of information. They shouldn’t drive risk tolerance and shouldn’t be used to tell anybody how to manage firms (or nations)

Models getting translated to the real world of company or national policy suffer indeed from a “chinese whispers syndrome”, with the original caveat-full expert statements awfully simplified and distorted for the benefit of the business directors (or national politicians).

At the end of the day, the problem is not the models. The models are tools, perhaps the devil’s but still just tools. The problem is putting all eggs in the models basket, in financial just as in AGW terms.


(original quotes)

(1) From In fallout from crisis, rethinking risk and human judgment, by Lynnley Browning; IHT, Wednesday, November 19, 2008

[…] to cope with uncertainty and “slippery slopes” […] “With this crisis, everybody is re-evaluating the concept of risk management,” said Richard Phillips, a professor of risk management and insurance at Georgia State University […]

The scrutiny goes beyond a dissection of the complex mathematical models created by financial engineering [and focuses] “on the overreliance on models,” said Carol Fox of the Risk and Insurance Management Society […]

Because nearly all risk-management models failed to predict or protect against the crisis, Fox said, insurers will increasingly view risk “more as a function of behavior than of models.”

Going forward, she said, insurers will use models “as a point of information, but it won’t drive risk tolerance” […].

“People have been managing the wrong risk […] ” said Peter Bernstein, a historian and the author of “Against the Odds: The Remarkable Story of Risk.” ”Risk management is about making choices, not preventing losses. […]

the financial crisis has made clear is that risk, and how one deals with it, can mean wildly different things to different companies, from gamble, hazard or chance to threat, possibility or opportunity. It can be a bucket of nasty things to be avoided, or a daring play. […]

It didn’t help matters that until the crisis, the field enjoyed a halo of academic credibility. “All these rocket scientists with Ph.D.s provided reassurance to decision makers and buyers,” said Paul Bracken, a professor of political science at Yale University.

[According to] Robert Merton, the Harvard Business School professor who received the Nobel in economic science in 1997 […] “A lot of it is straightforward things, like judgments made to accept ratings. We’ve got to get these financial engineers and quant types out of the banks and get sensible types in.” […]

“Our definition of risk became confused with obeying the law,” said Bill Sharon, chief executive of Sorms, a risk-management consulting firm. […]

Now, insurers are increasingly looking at risk management as a process applying […] to big-picture questions […].

After all, said Martin Grace, associate director of the Center for Risk Management and Insurance Research at Georgia State University, “you can have math models, but that doesn’t tell you how to manage the firm.”

(2) From When crisis hit, a global framework for limiting risk proved ineffective by Conrad de Aenlle, IHT, Wednesday, November 19, 2008

[…] Even if [The Basel II international accord on banking supervision] had been put into practice immediately, it might not have averted the crisis. Critics contend that the various models, formulas and equations used to determine asset quality provide a false sense of precision, leaving bankers and regulators with no clear idea of where they stand. The numbers that are derived amount to an educated guess calculated to umpteen decimal places.

“There has been too much focus on quantitative issues and data and models and a lack of understanding of what the main risks are in the business model,” said Peter Neu, a principal in Frankfurt for the Boston Consulting Group. “Risk managers are too busy with models and bringing up data that can’t be absorbed by senior management.”

A shortcoming of some models is that their risk projections come with a caveat that they are assumed to be accurate during normal market conditions. […]

(3) From Wall Street’s extreme sport: Financial engineering by Steve Lohr, IHT, November 5, 2008

“Complexity, transparency, liquidity and leverage have all played a huge role in this crisis,” said Leslie Rahl, president of Capital Market Risk Advisors, a risk-management consulting firm. “And these are things that are not generally modeled as a quantifiable risk.”

The miss by Wall Street analysts shows how models can be precise out to several decimal places, and yet be totally off base

The quantitative models typically have their origins in academia and often the physical sciences. In academia, the focus is on problems that can be solved, proved and published — not messy, intractable challenges. In science, the models derive from particle flows in a liquid or a gas, which conform to the neat, crisp laws of physics.

“To confuse the model with the world is to embrace a future disaster driven by the belief that humans obey mathematical rules.”

Better modeling, more wisely applied, would have helped, Lindsey said, but so would have common sense in senior management

RealClimate, or The Biggest Molehill In History

A “molehill“, says Gavin Schmidt on a RealClimate blog regarding a giant GISS temperature error in Northeastern Russia. A “glitch“.

Too bad it was a “molehill” in need of the 1,117 words of Schmidt’s blog.

There are two very reasonable replies to such a monumental self-declared waste of an effort, in the Climate Skeptic blog’s “Sorry Dr. Schmidt, But I am Not Feeling Guilty Yet (Part 1)” and “Responses to Gavin Schmidt, Part 2“.

For my part, I can only make reference to a basic principle of mine. Whatever you need to show, you are not. There is no need for me for example to wear a tag saying “male”: it’s rather obvious from the way I look.

There is not even a need to show I’m Italian, as anybody listening to my accent will immediately find out.

So I won’t spend 1,117 words to show either of that.

And therefore, what should one make of the fact that Gavin Schmidt felt compelled instead to argue the following?

No heads will roll, no congressional investigations will be launched, no politicians (with one possible exception) will take note

Molehills truly are mountains for very little people.

UPDATE NOV 14: Nice to see Lucia at The Blackboard make a very similar point (among many others)

Gavin does seem hellbent on turning the molehill into an even bigger mountain. If he keeps this up, maybe the mountain can turn into a volcanic eruption of Krakatoa like proportions which would then lower the GMST. . .

Simple Climate Questions? An Engineer Replies

(my answer to “Simple Question, Simple Answer… Not“, guest commentary by Spencer R. Weart, of the American Institute of Physics on RealClimate)

Would it be possible to have an actual senior engineer present their (presumably, mainstream) views of anthropogenic climate change and of the use of models?

As a (senior? and scientifically trained) engineer myself, I can guess what Mr Weart is aiming at, but he’s still using a language that brings down no barrier. For example, a statement such as

“Gilbert N. Plass used the data and computers to demonstrate that adding carbon dioxide to a column of air would raise the surface temperature”

will and does definitely make people suspicious.

You see, I have seen dozens, and I am sure there are out there hundreds of thousands of designs that have been “demonstrated” in a computer only to fail miserably when put into practice.

In fact, one point that I don’t think Mr Weart realizes (and likely, it’s all part of the miscommunication) is that it’s the engineers that have to deal with the actual world out there, and all its complexity, starting from but having to go beyond what calculations (formulae and/or models) suggest.

It really is the job of engineers to understand the complexity of the real world, and to make things work within that complexity.

There is little point in arguing to your manager that, say, in the computer your revolutionary design of a car needs only 2 gallons per 100 miles, when the actual thing is measured as drinking much more than that.

The one rule common to all engineered system is, the more stuff you put in, the higher the chances that something will go wrong. In Mr Weart’s case: the more factors need to be made to interact using models and supercomputers to calculate “global warming”, the higher the chance that the computed answer won’t be the right one.

Therefore, rather than accusing engineers of looking for simple answers (likely, misunderstanding them), Mr Weart should try to bridge the gap.

An example of another scientific endeavor, apart from climate change, where extremely complex, just-made modelling has been successfully applied as-is into an engineering project, would definitely be a good starting point.

Climate Models Are Correct (And Useless)

Climate models are correct indeed. Because, as Bill Clinton would love to say, it depends on what the definition of “correct” is.

In the real world, climate models cannot be falsified by a single observation (modelists say it’s “only weather”), or by a set of short-term observations (they call it “just a specific trajectory”).

In theory, one could wait a sufficient number of years in order to statistically check if the world has actually got warmer, but in practice models don’t include volcanoes, clouds, solar activity, etc: therefore, even if observations diverge from the models, all the modelists will do is find a “culprit” that can justify the discrepancy.

For the 1940-1970 cooling climate, they say “it was the aerosols”. Never mind that it could be a made-up story.

RealClimate’s own Gavin has said in the recent past, there is no interest in verifying if models are correct or not. Instead, the “right question” appears to be: “are there analyses that will be made over the next few years that will improve the evaluation of climate models?”

It should go without saying that in such a situations, models have no predictive capability beyond chance and they are for all intents and purposes useless.

Imagine modelling a human being as a heart pump with tubes coming in and out, and then when the patient dies of tuberculosis, having the superciliousness to state “the model is correct” instead of understanding that humans have a pulmonary system too (and a lot of other systems).

Whither a Climate Debate?

Gavin Schmidt writes at RealClimate

“The obvious ineptitude of this contribution underlines quite effectively how little debate there is on the fundamentals if this is the best counter-argument that can be offered.”

But it has been my impression that the main story, Monckton’s press releases notwithstanding, has been (and still is) the FPS Editor remarking that there is a considerable number of scientists skeptical of the IPCC conclusions.

The FPS Executive Committee now states on the FPS July 2008 page that they do not agree with the previous remark, suggesting it is all a matter of opinion.

However, with the APS jumping in against Monckton’s paper with red inks (thankfully now turned to black), and more than one call for the FPS Editor to be “fired” from his volunteer position for the mere reason that he made that remark, I wonder what kind of “debate” could at all be possible?

Actually, I’d rather the APS had replied with Gavin’s words “The obvious ineptitude of this contribution etc etc” challenging any of its readers to come up with something better than Monckton’s.

That would have given debate a chance. As things stand, I pretty much doubt any against-consensus contribution would appear on the FPS in the future, even were such a contribution to surface (and am sure, it won’t: otherwise yet more people’s bosses will receive e-mails asking to “fire the heretics”, an ominous metaphore it there’s ever been one)

Discounting the Future: Economics 1 – AGW 0

How can we evaluate future costs against present ones? Could it be right to apply a discount factor, so that $1 of today is equivalent to, say, $37 in the year 2100 (rate=4%), and to base on that, for example, climate change policy ?

The answer (“yes it may well be right!“) is buried deep among the dozens of comments to RealClimate’s quick rebuttal of Freeman Dyson’s ideas on global warming. And it is written in clear and concise explanations by a “card-carrying economist” signing as “Bob Murphy” (and no, I don’t think he considers himself as an “AGW skeptic”).

I report Murphy’s comments below (for my own convenience, mostly). Nothing against RealClimate here: there are plenty of blogs with hundreds and hundreds of replies by readers, and who knows how much truly insightful stuff is simply lost in the crowd.

One thing to note is that the reactions to Murphy’s perfectly reasonable remarks clearly show what the political and ethical slants of the RealClimate scientists are. Gavin’s conclusion is that “ethics are not discountable [so] there is no reason to think that [we should use] the same discounting rate that applies to today’s monetary investment decisions“. I am sure those are not the last words on this subject.

Bob Murphy Says:
25 May 2008 at 3:04 PM

Like Lou above, I also am a card-carrying economist, so you may want to discount what I say (ha ha)…

For the people who think economists have nothing to contribute to this issue, I guess all I can do is remind them that the various solutions being proposed to tackle climate change involve things economic. E.g., a tax on carbon or a cap-and-trade program. The hard sciences alone don’t tell us how many dollars per ton a carbon tax should be, just as it would be ridiculous for an economist to try to calculate that figure without asking help from the climatologists.

As far as discounting for future generations: You need to use a discount rate to make sure you’re helping them as much as possible. It seems that some posters here are objecting not to the discounting per se, but to the conversion of everything to dollars and cents. I have no problem with that objection.

However, if we’re going to quantify future damages from climate change into dollar terms, then we need to discount those numbers to sensibly determine how much it’s worth spending today to try to mitigate those damages. The reason is simple: We could take the money and invest it, giving a larger inheritance to future generations. Discounting makes sense even if the recipient isn’t alive yet. Presumably our grandkids would rather get something worth more than something worth less. And so that’s why it would be silly, say, to spend $900 today to avert $1000 in damages in the year 2100. It would make more sense to take that $900 and buy T-bills, and keep rolling them over for our descendants.

Again, if that talk sounds crazy to you, because “you can’t put a number on climate damage!” OK fair enough. But your problem isn’t with the discounting per se.

[Response: My problem is with discounting over long time frames, longer than a human lifetime. What if the ancient Greeks two thousand years ago had come up fossil energy, allowing them to thrive for a couple of hundred years? Would we thank them for leaving us a degraded world? Or do you think there would be some bank account somewhere where we could get all the invested money back, with interest, in compensation? David]

Bob Murphy Says:
25 May 2008 at 8:47 PM
David wrote:

My problem is with discounting over long time frames, longer than a human lifetime. What if the ancient Greeks two thousand years ago had come up fossil energy, allowing them to thrive for a couple of hundred years? Would we thank them for leaving us a degraded world? Or do you think there would be some bank account somewhere where we could get all the invested money back, with interest, in compensation?

If the ancient Greeks had attained our current level of technology, then right now I think we would all be thousands of times wealthier than we currently are. If the Earth were a bit warmer than it is right now, that would definitely be worth the extra wealth; everyone would turn up the AC in his or her hovercraft on the way to his or her 10-hour-per-week job.

Yes this is a fanciful scenario, but only because you gave me a fanciful assumption and asked about its implications.

There are billions of people who right now lack basic utilities like clean drinking water and dependable electricity. If they are encouraged (forced?) to try to leapfrog over fossil fuels and go right to solar or whatever, their development will be hindered. And hence their grandchildren will be much poorer than under the business-as-usual case.

I used the T-bill example just to make the point, but it doesn’t rely on direct lineage. E.g. you and I benefit right now from the capital accumulation of earlier generations. When people work with tools and equipment, their labor is much more productive than if we all had to start from scratch with just nature and our bare hands.

Obviously, if you think that business-as-usual will lead to catastrophic damages, then a rational response would be to limit GHG emissions in the present, notwithstanding the high cost. But I’m just saying, the way to handle this in economic terms is to realize that the future damages are so high (measured in $$) that, even with discounting, they are still higher than the present costs of mitigation.

One other point: I want to second the statement of a previous poster, that yes Stern actually does discount future climate damages. This is because of the small probability that those generations won’t exist to enjoy the fruits of our current, costly mitigation efforts. E.g. there could be nuclear war, an asteroid could blow up the world in 2025, etc.

But Stern does not allow a “pure” discount rate, where the utility of future generations is discounted simply because of its futurity. So that’s why his overall discount rate is lower than Nordhaus’, who bases his on the market’s observed discount rate.

Bob Murphy Says:
25 May 2008 at 8:53 PM
David Benson wrote:

Lamont (48 ) wrote “Why can’t mitigating climate change and GHGs produce economic stimulus, rather than be a drag on the economy?” It can. I opine that it largely will be, due to ingenuity and innovation.

I agree that human ingenuity will always find ways to make a given situation better. But the point is, requiring a reduction in CO2 emissions takes away our range of options. Other things equal, it necessarily makes us poorer.

Now of course, most posters here would say other things aren’t equal. They would say the costs of mitigation are outweighed by the avoided damages of further global warming.

I’m not arguing that point right now. I’m merely saying that it’s not correct to, say, count up the “green jobs” as a benefit of a carbon tax or cap-and-trade program. This is because you would have to then include all the jobs that were destroyed (in SUV manufacturing, coal-fired power plants, etc.) by those measures.

If the government passed a law forbidding the production of anything that was yellow, that could only make us poorer. By the same token, if the government says industry has to reduce its carbon emissions by x% next year, in and of itself that makes us poorer.

Bob Murphy Says:
26 May 2008 at 9:26 AM

The real problem with doing nothing now will be the cost in lives not air conditioning later. That means you, your kids and the rest.

But this is also the “real problem” with severe restrictions on the use of fossil fuels. As I said earlier, there are billions of people who don’t have what we consider to be necessities of life. They really are dying every day in ways directly traceable to this lack.

So if your criterion is, “Minimize the number of premature deaths over the next 200 years” or something like that, it doesn’t automatically follow that a massive carbon tax now is the answer. It could be the answer, but it is an empirical question. Many posters here are acting as if altruism for others necessarily implies support for radical curbs on carbon emissions, when it doesn’t. You would have to (a) care about future generations, and (b) agree with some of the more catastrophic predictions, in order to support radical measures today.

On the issue of discounting, I agree that on the face of it, it sounds crazy to even ask, “How many future people are worth one person today?” But as I tried to get across (obviously not very persuasively) in earlier posts, the fact is that the price of current purchasing power is higher than (right now) the price of purchasing power in the year 2100. So there needs to be some discount rate (and people can argue about how high it should be) to make sure present mitigation efforts are as effective as they can be.

One final note: I am not saying that the psychological motivation of most “deniers” is concern for people dying of dysentery in Africa today. Of course not. But even so, it is a fact that there are people we know are dying today from poverty. Their efforts to climb out of poverty will be hampered by mitigation proposals. So it’s not simply a matter of, “Do you value human lives?” It’s an empirical an ethical issue of, “Is allowing x more people to die for sure over the next 20 years, counterbalanced by models that lead us to believe we will thus save x+y people over the next 200 years?”

Incidentally I am not being sarcastic in writing the above. The answer may very well be “yes, it is worth it.” I’m only trying to show that it is a question of balance, to quote Nordhaus. It’s not simply, “Do I value my SUV more than 80 kids 100 years from now?”

Bob Murphy Says:
26 May 2008 at 1:25 PM
In response to post #70, raypierre wrote:

The two points you make have been quite thoroughly addressed, but you weren’t paying attention….Besides [Nordhaus’ dubious model], there’s the highly questionable issue of the discount rate assumed by Nordhaus and many other economists. David addressed that specifically in his post.

Hang on a second. The following is David’s addressing of the issue of discount rates:

I personally can get my head around the concept of discounting if the time span is short enough that it’s the same person on either end of the transaction, but when the time scales start to reach hundreds and thousands of years, the people who pay in the future are not the same as the ones who benefit now.

There’s no polite way I can say this, but the above is honestly analogous to me (an economist) criticizing the IPCC at a website like WeHateGore.org and saying, “Personally, I don’t see why we should put any faith in these models. They can’t even tell me if it’s going to rain next week, so when the time scale goes to hundreds or thousands of years…!”

So whatever your thoughts on discounting, David’s expression of personal confusion over the practice of economists hardly counts as a thorough disposal of the practice.

And yes, some people pointed to Weitzman’s work, and the RFF paper. Again, this is analogous to me pointing to Lindzen and saying, “Look, even an MIT expert on this stuff agrees with me! These models are bunk!”

It’s hard to keep the different objections separate on this thread. As I keep pointing out, a lot of people here don’t like the idea of using dollar measurements in the first place, in which case the discussion of discounting is superfluous.

But if you are prepared to accept that a cost/benefit test of proposed mitigation measures isn’t absurd, then the next step is to ask whether future costs and benefits should be given equal weight to present ones.

And I’m saying the answer is no, because whether we agree with it or not, the market right now undervalues future dollars. So we can achieve our aims more cheaply by recognizing this basic fact, rather than declaring it immoral.

I’ll try one more analogy to get the point across. Suppose there is a homeowner trying to decide whether to spend $1000 renovating the insulation in his house, in order to save $100 on utility bills per year. Should he do it or not?

If David is right, then before we can answer that question, we need to know how old the homeowner is. After all, if he’s going to die in two years, then clearly the expenditure isn’t worth it, right?

(The standard answer of course is no, the age of the homeowner is irrelevant, assuming he wants to pass on as much wealth as possible to his heirs. They will reap the benefits of the efficient purchase of insulation. They would rather get the insulated home, and $800 less in cash, than the non-insulated home, and $800 more in cash. [The $200 comes from the two years of life left in the homeowner, in which he lowers his utility bills from the new insulation.])

[Response: There is a real difference between assessing a discount rate for dollar investments for which clear alternatives are available (i.e. why bother to invest in something special if the bank interest rate is higher than the expected return), and assessing the worth of non-economic goods (’the social discount rate’). Confusing the two concepts is at the heart of most of the noise surrounding this issue. To give an extreme example for clarity, if someone uses a bomb to blow up someone today, that is surely just as heinous as if they bury the bomb and set it to blow up tomorrow (or next week or next year). It is equally unethical to set the timer for a day in the future as for a hundred years, yet any substantial social discounting would downgrade the crime to a misdemeanor given a long enough lead time. There is a difference and pretending that only the economically illiterate think so, is not constructive. It is however an ethical decision, and can’t be proven one way or another using economics alone. – gavin]

Bob Murphy Says:
26 May 2008 at 1:28 PM
One final comment, and then I think I should quit while I’m ahead (or not too far behind): Nordhaus is actually on “your” side in this. He has been one of the most vocal economists on the importance of climate change.

If you think he is unduly activist, it might be because, as a professional economist, he sees costs of your personally favored policies that you aren’t considering.

Bob Murphy Says:
26 May 2008 at 1:52 PM
Whoops–typo: I meant above to say that if you think Nordhaus’ isn’t activist enough, then it might be because he is worrying about drawbacks to mitigation policies that you aren’t taking seriously. I.e. there seems to be a sense here that because he’s skeptical of some approaches, he must not care about the environment as much as Gore (or Stern) does. And I don’t think that’s it at all. Believe me, I have been a critic of Nordhaus on this very issue, so it’s odd that I’m defending him here.

Bob Murphy Says:
26 May 2008 at 2:54 PM
Well shoot, I said I was done pestering you guys, but then Gavin goes and makes a great analogy that I hope will really clarify our different positions on this. So if you’ll forgive me for one more attempt:

There is a real difference between assessing a discount rate for dollar investments for which clear alternatives are available (i.e. why bother to invest in something special if the bank interest rate is higher than the expected return), and assessing the worth of non-economic goods (’the social discount rate’). Confusing the two concepts is at the heart of most of the noise surrounding this issue. To give an extreme example for clarity, if someone uses a bomb to blow up someone today, that is surely just as heinous as if they bury the bomb and set it to blow up tomorrow (or next week or next year). It is equally unethical to set the timer for a day in the future as for a hundred years, yet any substantial social discounting would downgrade the crime to a misdemeanor given a long enough lead time.

OK thanks, as I said this really crystallized our differences on this. Note that we’re actually closer to agreement than you seem to think; all along I have said, “If you don’t want to put a dollar value on lives or the environment, that’s fine. But if you do then you need to discount.” I think we’re both agreed, then, that the basic problem with Nordhaus is his attempt to monetize everything, rather than his application of a discount rate to those monetary values.

But anyway, back to your example: First of all, under the law you will get a lighter sentence (today) for planting a bomb set to go off in one year, than if you planted one that went off two minutes ago. And the difference of course is that you haven’t actually killed anybody with the first bomb. This is relevant to the climate discussion, because those future harms might not actually occur. And I don’t even mean, maybe carbon-munching trees will be developed. As I said, Stern discounts the future because of the possibility that those people won’t exist (asteroid, nuclear war, etc.).

(Now in fairness, you could say, “OK, if the bomb is set to go off in one week, versus one year.” I don’t know what the legal treatment of these cases would be, but in either case you would not be charged with murder, because no one is yet dead.)

But now let’s make your bomb scenario a little closer to the climate change one, and hopefully you’ll see why I keep insisting that discounting is important. Suppose that instead of just an outright government crackdown on bomb-planting, the government capitulates to the bomb lobbyists and only imposes a $35 tax on every bomb planted. (Maybe most citizens view bomb planting as essential to their way of life.)

Now in that case, it really would be crazy to not discount the fine based on the timer setting, because otherwise the same crime would be penalized at different levels. E.g. someone today plants a bomb set to go off in one year, and he gets fined $35. Then next year, someone plants a bomb to go off in 24 hours, and he also gets fined $35.

Both bombers killed one person in the year 2009. But the first bomber paid a higher fine, because he had to pay $35 in 2008, while the second guy had to pay it in 2009. During his trial, the first guy in 2008 could have said, “Hang on a second! Don’t make me pay it now, make me pay the $35 when it actually kills someone.” And naturally he would prefer that outcome, because he could set aside less than $35 today (in 2008 when he’s convicted), and let it roll over to $35 in 2009 when his bomb actually causes damage.

So that’s one way of seeing why, if you’re going to bring monetary incentives into it, which plenty of environmentalists want to do, then it matters that “current money” is more expensive than “future money.”

To insist that monetary fees (carbon taxes, prices for cap-and-trade permits, etc.) reflect the prevailing exchange rate between present and future dollars, is no crazier than saying a carbon tax expressed in Japanese yen has to be higher per ton than a carbon tax expressed in US dollars.

To push the bomb analogy even further, yes it certainly would be better if the bomb planters could be persuaded to set their timers farther into the future, even if we’re solely concerned about minimizing the damages from their actions. This is because we have more time to adapt to the bombs. People in the vicinity can move away, they can buy armor for their cars, etc.

Obviously I’ve carried the analogy a bit far, but I’m just trying to show that the closer you make it to the actual situation of carbon emissions causing future damages, and especially where the government’s response is to inflict monetary fines on the parties doing the damaging, then you need to use discounting. Otherwise you end up with an outcome that is inferior from everyone’s viewpoint, to what would be achievable if discounting were used.

[Response: My point was only that ethics are not discountable. It is equally unethical to plant the bomb with a one day setting as with a century setting. Your extension to my analogy is really a stretch to make an ethical point into an economic point – I don’t see that any of your additional assumptions are necessarily valid. But nonetheless, there are clear uncertainties with future actions that mean that something that is almost certain to happen if I plan it for a day ahead, is less certain if I plan for a century ahead. Fine – some kind of allowance needs to be made for that (as Stern does). But there is no reason to think that it should be the same discounting rate that applies to today’s monetary investment decisions. – gavin]

A Real Climate of Misunderstanding

What Climate Science?
Are AGW climate scientists and science-prone skeptics talking about the same subject? I thought so, but am not sure of that any longer.

Having read Real Climate (RC)’s “Butterfly” blog and engaged in some commentary about it at that site, and having followed the AGW debate for the last five years, my impression is that:

  • the AGW climate scientists are just doing what they can, after heavily restricting their area of research
  • I and some other fellow science-minded skeptics are simply pointing out to the vast, unexplored regions outside of your average climate modeller’s understanding and computational ability.

Imagine if paleontologists had decided to concentrate on the skulls of Rift Valley hominids, treating with disdain (aka as “noise”) all of a find’s context, including other human bones, remains of other animals, local geography (and climate). And deliberatingly ignoring every other hominid find, anywhere else in the world.

That’d still be science, but within such a very focused line of research quite unlikely to add much knowledge or understanding, apart than about itself.

There Must Be Some…
If such a colossal misunderstanding is indeed in place, that would go a long way in explaining the extraordinary ill feelings surrounding the whole of climate science at the moment (and I am deliberately keeping politics outside of this), with one side treating skepticism itself as a dishonest scandal that should be stamped out of existence once and for all, and the other side dismissing years and years of research as pretty much irrelevant gibberish written by incompetent liars.

No wonder they (we) can’t see each other eye-to-eye…how could two judges agree at a canine show contest, if one of them were only interested in (and had built a whole theory of canine beauty about) the shape of the tails?

Climatology: An Abridged History
The story of how contemporary climatology has ended up like this is illuminating.

At first, basic laboratory experiments gave some indications on how atmospheric constituents could interact with one another, and with the incoming solar radiation. Notable among them, the study of CO2’s “greenhouse effect” by Arrhenius in 1896. But the real world of meteorology (including climate) is somewhat more complex than a lab’s setting.

For example, vast energy exchanges manifest in atmospheric cell circulation, oceanic heat exchanges, and whole climate-affecting cycles currently known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, the North Atlantic Oscillation, el Nino/la Nina, etc etc.

With no way of replicating that in controlled laboratory conditions, climatologists opted at one point to computational models of the atmosphere. This was of course possible only and after a minimum of computational power became available.

Computers of course understand only numbers and formulas/commands. In order to get to that, a momentous assumption was made: in an approach curiously reminiscent of the science of aeronautics, climate was taken as the response of the atmosphere to “forcings”, i.e. discernible components pushing and pulling the atmosphere in one or the other direction.

“Climate” is then the resulting overall effect of the action of each forcing, averaged over a certain lentgh of time.

In that context, “forcings” were purely operational, “digitizational” tools, providing some basis for computing the climate. By definition, in fact, forcings cannot be measured: all observations of the actual atmosphere will (obviously!) include the effect of them all. If “forcings” exist or not is therefore irrelevant. For all they were worth, forcings could have been substituted by Fourier analysis, or Principal Component Analysis, or whatever other technical tool that can transform a set of signals (and formulas) of any sort into computer-friendly figures (and procedures).

However, alongside a steady increase in available computational power, there came the a shift in focus, from real (observable) climate to forcings: in a first dichotomy with the real world, models became ways of investigating the (possible) effect of each forcing, instead of forcings being ways of investigating the (possible) evolution of the planet’s climate.

This change is less subtle than it appears. It entails throwing one’s hands up in the air about trying to understand the actual atmosphere, choosing instead to concentrate on known (pre-set) effects of known causes. Models in fact are far from independent from assumptions about forcings: they are made out of them. The effect of each forcing is already written in the code of each model, and model runs will show that effect at work. Even if results could vary for example modifying a model’s representation of geography, there is no way that model will be able to run contrary to its pre-assumed behaviour, for example in the case of increased CO2 concentration.

If I write a computer program that just adds one every time a white objects traverses a camera’s field of view, there is no way my program will ever count down, say to minus 20. And the fact that the counter always increases says nothing about how many white objects there are in the real world. It just shows how the counter works.

Nothing But Parameters
What can you do when all you have are models only useful to investigate what a particular forcing’s effect might be? You are left with playing with the parameters, modifying them to “fit” observations and “plausibility”. This is manifest for example in Hansen et al’s 2007 article, “Climate simulations for 1880–2003 with GISS modelE“, literally saddled with innumerable “estimations”, six of them explicitly “subjective” (little more than guesses, that is) but still able somehow to get published in a peer-reviewed scientific article.

Note that comparison to the real world is but a side issue in that paper. “Observations” (25+ years of averages) are useful to evaluate what the parameters are likely to be, i.e. the relative importance of each forcing. There is nothing important outside of them. In a second dichotomy with the real world, in such a vision of the world everything that is not included in the modelling is “noise”, in other words “irrelevant”.

There is no “going back to the lab” in contemporary mainstream forcings-based climate science, eg to learn anything new after finding unexpected observations, because those are “noise” (sometimes called, “weather”) and thus have to be ignored. And there is no meaningful effort to measure what if anything is going wrong: for example, comparisons between model results and observations are simply visual.

The good thing about this is that there are enormous avenues of research left open to future generations. The downside is that the reality of climate models is, at present, literally set in stone, whatever the real climate is out there.

Can climate models predict anything?
Skeptics and non-skeptics alike seem to agree that models cannot predict (i.e. make predictions that can be falsified, or confirmed, by observations) for timeframes shorter than around 25 years from the time of computation.

In fact, RealClimate seems to be willing to take a quarter of a century, more or less, as the minimum amount of time needed to get “averages” that can be called “climate” rather than mere “weather”. That is a second example of AGW climate scientists pigeonholing themselves: just as anything that cannot be modelled by forcings is “noise”, so anything that doesn’t cancel itself over 25 years is “noise” too.

So we started with “climate science” only to get stuck into “multi-decadal averaging to evaluate parameters to use in estimating the effect of forcings”.

Can anything ever disprove a forcings-based model?
No. Nothing at all ever will. Some AGWers are answering that with improbable claims about Popper being long dead, an eery reply one would expect only from inventors of perpetual-motion machines.

Actually, the prove/disprove question may simply be the wrong question. Models are only tools to investigate the possible effect of each forcing. Hansen et al talk about “using the model for simulations of future climate change”.

The key word there is of course “simulations”.

Models are not a weather-predicting tool (remember, they are about “climate”, not “weather”). And they are not a climate-predicting tool either, even if they are often abused as if they were. In its 2001 report the IPCC itself stated as much, in no uncertain terms: “In climate research and modelling, we should recognise that we are dealing with a coupled non-linear chaotic system, and therefore that the long-term prediction of future climate states is not possible” (from the IPCC TAR-WG1, 2001).

What models can do is simulate the effect of individual forcings in isolation, something that can never be observed anyway. They also simulate the cumulative effect of forcings, with added uncertainty as interactions must be modelled too. Such a cumulative effect is not necessarily expected to be observable either.

It must be stated that as far as I can remember RC has never claimed anything more. Good for them. Perhaps they could have been clearer before more clear and more often, but things are starting to move in the right direction, of late. As already quoted in a previous blog: “[…] The ensemble mean is monotonically increasing in the absence of large volcanoes, but this is the forced component of climate change, not a single realisation or anything that could happen in the real world. […]”

And Kevin Trenberth, a lead author of the IPCC-TAR report, recently wrote: “In fact there are no predictions by IPCC at all. And there never have been. The IPCC instead proffers ‘what if’ projections of future climate that correspond to certain emissions scenarios.”

Compounded Weaknesses
Don’t get me wrong: on its own, doing an estimation is part-and-parcel of conducting scientific research; computer modelling is a great tool for very complex situation; forcings are a good way to translate a system into a manageable model; and scenarios are the standard way to evaluate risk.

But with regards to forcings-based climate science, all of those combine together compounding their weaknesses rather than their strenghts: estimations are often subjective, computer models are used to study forcings rather than climate, forcings are taken as “real” even if they cannot be measured, and scenarios are interrogated not for current sensitivities but as forecasts.

They have become the basis for a large Intergovernmental organization, tens of international meetings, the collective action of thousands of people, one Oscar and one Nobel Peace Prize, all in the name of what every knowledgeable person knows it is impossible to predict.

What Kind of Science is Climate Science?
Restricted to “the computation of scenarios (the ‘what-ifs’ projections)”, climate modelling is a science (the “science of climate forcings”, in fact). And RealClimate is as good as it gets. The same applies to much of contemporary AGW scientific journalism and publications, including Scientific American, American Scientist, New Scientist, Nature, Science. And the BBC.

Just try, next time you read their reports, to imagine a world view (a “climate narrative“) where climatology, the most uncertain of exact sciences, is applied science, a policy-making tool where only forcings count and, among the forcings, only those of anthropogenic origin are relevant (as there is little to make policies about, for non-anthropogenic forcings).

That is too narrow a view to be useful for risk management, let alone to bring science forward. It may lead to worries wasting time worrying about possible future stronger hurricanes, rather than about certain concentrating on preventi present-day catastrophical levee failure for present-day storms.

Time to Expand the “Climate Narrative”
Models have been the cradle of climatology, Tsiolkovsky would have said, but we cannot live in the cradle forever. It is time to expand the “climate narrative”, by getting climate science of the models-forcings-scenarios hole.

Because “real” climate is much, much more than RealClimate.

Kudos to RealClimate's Honesty and Sincerity

And no, I am not being sarcastic.

It’s just that (finally!) there is a RC claim that can be compared to the real world; next to it, a good dose of outright sincerity (surely it must have been there before,  perhaps buried in the polemic…)

From What the IPCC models really say (May 12, 2008):

  • Claims that GCMs project monotonic rises in temperature with increasing greenhouse gases are not valid. Natural variability does not disappear because there is a long term trend. The ensemble mean is monotonically increasing in the absence of large volcanoes, but this is the forced component of climate change, not a single realisation or anything that could happen in the real world.
  • […]
  • Over a twenty year period, you would be on stronger ground in arguing that a negative trend would be outside the 95% confidence limits of the expected trend (the one model run in the above ensemble suggests that would only happen ~2% of the time).

Note that even the fabled 20-year negative trend may still be interpreted as consistent with at least one model run.

But it’s a good step in the right direction: bringing back climate science from its forcings cage to the actual world…

Climate Models Are Irrelevant, and Latest IPCC Models a Regression

(many thanks to LM for pointing this out)

  • “[GCM] model outputs at annual and climatic (30‐year) scales are irrelevant with reality
  • model predictions are much poorer that an elementary prediction based on the time average
  • The GCM outputs of AR4, as compared to those of TAR, are a regression in terms of the elements of falsifiability they provide, because most of the AR4 scenarios refer only to the future, whereas TAR scenarios also included historical periods

Those are not the insane ramblings of yours truly, but the conclusions of D. Koutsoyiannis et al’s “Assessment of the reliability of climate predictions based on comparisons with historical time series“, a poster presentation at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly 2008 in Vienna, Austria, 13‐18 April 2008.

Of course, it’s only a poster presentation…and of course, there was really no space at all to talk about it in the news, eg on the BBC.

Well, there is one good thing that has come out of this though: some explicit references in RealClimate about the need to have “a very civilized and friendly chat, “to be respectful, sincere, and show courtesy in our criticism, even when we argue why we think that a paper has flaws“, and that “we some day may be mistaken, so it’s important to be humble and check our drafts amongst ourselves“.

This will mean no more verbal attacks about “negationism”, and few if any displays of condescension. Sure it will… 

Climate Models: How Much Difference is Too Much Difference?

Does anyboy know the answer?

I re-post here a comment I just left at RealClimate (one never knows what gets published over there, and what doesn’t…)

Re: #101 As a matter of fact if you search on PubMed http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/ there are four articles with my name. In two of them I appear as first author. And no, they are not first-rated earth-shattering Science or Nature articles about climate science.

But as we all agree now, that’s beside the point.

Let’s me start again from a simple question. Hansen et al did compare model results to observations.

“Climate simulations for 1880–2003 with GISS modelE”, Clim Dyn (2007) 29:661–696 – DOI 10.1007/s00382-007-0255-8

For example, consider fig. 9 (the PDF of the article is on the internet, apologies but I do not have time to search for it right now):

“Fig. 9 Global maps of temperature change in observations (top row) and in the model runs of Fig. 8, for 1880–2003 and several subperiods. […]”

Observations there are shown in periods respectively of 124 years (1880-2003), 54 years, 61 years, 40 years and finally 25 years (1979-2003).

Presumably, this provides a first approximation of what time spans are needed to talk about climate (around 25 years). The actual shortest period may be 40 years or longer, as 1979-2003 has been chosen primarily as “the era of extensive satellite observations”. Please correct me if am wrong.

Let’s take now a clear-cut example. The authors write “All forcings together yield a global mean warming ~0.1C less than observed for the full period 1880–2003.”. And that’s a remarkable result.

But…may I ask this rather elementary question: say, if the global mean warming yielded by all forcings together had been much less, or much more than observed, what would have been the (absolute) threshold above which the climate simulations would have been declared a failure?

Or has this question no meaning either? If not, why not?

Once again, I am consciously simplifying things here but this is a blog…more a brainstorming session than a week-long workshop.

La Religione Ambientalista del Riscaldamento Globale

Carlo Stagnaro (si’, proprio lui) ha deciso di citarmi sul blog de Il Foglio: “Gli ambientalisti costruiscono la loro nuova fede alla Nicea del global warming“:

La religione del global warming ha finalmente avuto il suo Concilio di Nicea. Il blog RealClimate.org – una specie di assemblea dei saggi dell’allarmismo climatico – ha pubblicato un importante post in seguito alla scomparsa di Ed Lorenz. Lorenz ha conquistato la fama pubblica e l’immortalità scientifica inaugurando le teorie del caos e sintetizzandole nell’effetto farfalla: il battito d’ali di una farfalla in Brasile può causare un uragano in Texas. I redattori di RealClimate.org si sono sentiti in dovere di spiegare che sì, l’effetto farfalla crea qualche grattacapo a chi vorrebbe sfruculiare le interiora di gallina per cavarne previsioni affidabili sulle temperature tra cent’anni. Però, nessun grattacapo è insuperabile se lo si seppellisce sotto una dichiarazione di fede: e hanno risolto la questione deliberando in questa maniera: “But how can climate be predictable if weather is chaotic? The trick lies in the statistics. In those same models that demonstrate the extreme sensitivity to initial conditions, it turns out that the long term means and other moments are stable. […] Climate change then is equivalent seeing how the structure changes, while not being too concerned about the specific trajectory you are on”. Che può essere liberamente tradotto così: non importa cosa succede oggi, cosa è accaduto ieri, come andranno le cose domani; i nostri modelli guardano oltre, all’alba del giorno dopo, e allora si dimostreranno infine giusti e il mondo sarà un’immensa palla rovente a causa dell’uso indiscriminato degli spazzolini elettrici. Come ha rivelato l’attento Maurizio Morabito, “la mancanza di attenzione per la traiettoria specifica del riscaldamento globale fa sì che letteralmente non possa esistere alcun set di osservazioni in grado di falsificare i modelli”. A differenza del Concilio di Nicea del 325 dC, che era una cosa seria tanto che siamo qui a quasi due millenni di distanza e ancora ne parliamo, il pronunciamento di RealClimate.org non ha a che fare con la Verità ma con la fuffa, non con la vita eterna ma col cattivo tempo. Non c’è proprio più religione.


RealClimate: (quasi) Niente Puo’ Falsificare i Nostri Modelli

Momenti di comicita’ involontaria sul sito RealClimate, considerato da molti il Faro e/o l’Oracolo per cio’ che concerne i cambiamenti climatici di origine antropogenica.

Gestito da ricercatori della NASA sotto lo sguardo dell’esimio James Hansen, “RealClimate” si propone da anni come il sito “de rigueur” per chi crede che le attivita’ umane stiano cambiando il clima in una maniera che a breve (nel giro di qualche decennio) si rivelera’ disastrosa.

Il problema pero’ e’ che come si sa, anche le previsioni del tempo a due settimane se non due giorni possono essere completamente sbagliate, per cui a tutta prima pensare di sapere quanto piovera’ nel 2087 o quanto saranno estese le zone desertiche nel 2103 sembrerebbe davvero eccessivo. Il tempo contiene elementi molto instabili, per cui una piccola variazione iniziale puo’ portare a risultati assolutamente divergenti.

RealClimate (attenzione: il gruppo intero, non solo uno o due persone come di solito) ha deciso di rispondere a quel dubbio approfittando della morte di Ed Lorenz, lo scienziato americano che sviluppo la Teoria del Caos proprio a partire dalle sue esperienze di metereologo.

Sfortunatamente, in “Le Farfalle, I Tornado e I Modelli Climatici” il gruppo di RealClimate ha inavvertitamente dichiarato al mondo che i modelli climatici non possono praticamente essere mai falsificati: qualunque cosa succeda, cioe’, sia che faccia caldo, o freddo, o piova, o sia secco, o se ci sono piu’ uragani, o meno uragani, o piu’ tornado, o meno tornado, o se la calotta polare si scioglie, oppure se ingrandisce di dimensione: qualunque fenomeno atmosferico, semplicemente non potra’ mai essere usato per negare veridicita’ ai modelli climatici che prevedono il riscaldamento globale e il cambiamento climatico.

Discorsi perfettamente analoghi si applicano anche a qualunque insieme di fenomeni atmosferici nel breve periodo, dove per “breve periodo” si intende probabilmente “di durata inferiore ai venti o trenta anni”.

Entro in piu’ dettagli nel mio blog sul clima (in inglese: “RealClimate rende la vita piu’ difficile ai modelli climatici” e “Ulteriori considerazioni sulla infalsificabilita’ dei modelli climatici su RealClimate“) quindi almeno per ora mi limito a una brevissima citazione:

[…] per il problema del clima, il tempo metereologico (o la traiettoria individuale) e’ [solo] rumore […]

Se per esempio i modelli indicano riscaldamento prossimo venturo, e i termometri indicano Gennaio e Febbraio 2008 come abbastanza piu’ freddi del solito, RealClimate puo’ comunque dire che i modelli sono giusti, e si tratta solo un fenomeno momentaneo (il “tempo”, appunto: “rumore”).

E se i modelli dicono che all’aumentare della concentrazione di gas-serra devono aumentare le temperature globali, mentre tale aumento si e’ interrotto dal 1998, di nuovo RealClimate puo’ dire che i modelli sono giusti, e che semplicemente la strada verso un pianeta piu’ caldo passa per alcuni anni senza aumento del riscaldamento (la “traiettoria individuale”).

L’unica maniera per verificare i modelli climatici sembra essere l’aspettare venti o trenta anni per vedere se il riscaldamento c’e’ stato. Difficilmente pero’ un tale atteggiamento puo’ essere usato per giustificare gli interventi drastici e illiberali che tanti richiedono, anzi pretendono.

Lo stesso Gavin Schmidt di RealClimate, in un blog di qualche mese fa, ha detto esplicitamente che le osservazioni servono “a migliorare i modelli” (invece che, che ne so, elaborare quelle “bestemmie” che sarebbero nuove interpretazioni). In altre parole: non e’ il modello climatico ad essere subordinato al mondo esterno, ma l’esatto opposto…


Forse e’ solo un triste caso di “amore soffocante”, con i modellisti cosi’ innamorati dei modelli, da proteggerli a ogni costo, estraniandoli pero’ allora dalla “scienza” che e’ fatta, appunto, di teorie falsificabili, non corazzate contro qualunque critica o osservazione.

E’ davvero ironico che cio’ accada su RealClimate, dove non e’ praticamente possibile postare commenti se non di elogio e di accordo per i gestori del sito.

RealClimate, insomma, e’ il posto impermeabile al mondo esterno, dove modellisti impermeabili al mondo esterno pubblicano articoli impermeabili al mondo esterno…

RealClimate Raises the Bar AGAINST Climate Models

With the death of Ed Lorenz and a world apparently taking a hiatus on the way to unstoppable anthropogenic global warming, It has taken a group effort at RealClimate to try to deal with the issue of chaotic weather vs. climate modelling: “Butterflies, tornadoes and climate modelling“.

Rather unfortunately for the authors, the conclusions contain a remarkable amount of unintended irony.

[…] But how can climate be predictable if weather is chaotic? The trick lies in the statistics. In those same models that demonstrate the extreme sensitivity to initial conditions, it turns out that the long term means and other moments are stable. […] Climate change then is equivalent seeing how the structure changes, while not being too concerned about the specific trajectory you are on

In other words, “climate change” is an entity that can only become observable in the long, long term. And since there is little concern for the “specific trajectory”, there literally exists NO possible short-term sets of observations that can falsify the climate models.

Another way of saying it is that for the climate problem, the weather (or the individual trajectory) is the noise. If you are trying to find the common signal that is a signature of a particular forcing then averaging over a number of simulations with different weather works rather well […]

In other words, since each and every atmospheric event can be obviously described as “weather”, there is no single observation that can falsify the climate models.

Their work doesn’t have to deal with any single observation, no short-term sets of observations…do they realize what they are saying???

Real climate is in their own words almost perfectly insulated from the real world. Nothing that can ever happen will be able to disprove the work of the climate modellers, apart from multi-decadal averages that are so poorly defined, they can easily be used to demonstrate anything.

Is this “science”? Looks more like long-term guaranteed employment to me… No wonder Anthropogenic Climate Change has important detractors in the metereological community.

In further irony, the above pairs up perfectly well with RC’s “comments policy” that can be summarized more or less into “we will censor everything we do not like“.

RealClimate: the insulated web site, where insulated researchers post insulated content. Now I understand why poor Gavin Schmidt had such a hard time dealing with an open debate

The Failure of AGW Advocacy

Are climate skeptics helping prevent AGW policies from being implemented? That may well be true: but the actual situation is much more complex.

In truth, one cannot fault people expressing their opinions, and their dissent from “consensus”, for the fact that their views appear to be listened to by politicians (not sure they truly are), whilst the “consensus” usually results into idle talk or cures that are worse than the illness (see biofuels, or the idiotically expensive Kyoto treaty).

One important point to remember is that much of the Anglo-Saxon world’s brouhaha around climate change is linked directly to the hysteria accompanying a lot of AGW proclamations and actions. Likely due to political naivete, groups of scientists-advocates have joined Greenpeace and the likes in an escalation of hyperboles, with the world depicted almost as turning into cinder by Tuesday, if we don’t all go back to living in caves.

As some AGW scientists said about Al Gore’s movie, those hyperboles are not scientifically right, but are deemed ok to “convey the message”.

Distortion of science for a good cause was and unfortunately still is in fact a tactic devised to break down the BAU inertia (aka the “cost of Doing Something”). The problem is that there are only so many times such inertia can be countered with doom-and-gloom. AGWers have been unlucky enough to show up years if not months after major scares have fizzled out, like Y2K and SARS.

The general population then, and many politicians, have been healthily inoculated against unwarranted exaggerations. That’s why the AGW camp, still using obsolete influencing techniques, have literally painted themselves into a whining-and-crying corner, with few listening to them unless when there is an occasion for swindling public money (see US corn subsidies, and the European cap-and-trade system).

You can just read Dr Pachauri’s incredible declarations about the latest Antarctic huge iceberg, to see what I mean by hyperbole, exaggeration and distortion of science:

“if the huge bodies of ice of western Antarctica and Greenland ice sheets, sitting on land, were to collapse […]”

There is no danger nor forecast nor model that suggests anything of the sort happening for a long long long time even under the direst temperature increases we can imagine. So what is the point of talking about that, rather than more pressing concerns, such as the droughts and floods that do seem to come out of the model runs???


And so the situation is: in a corner, AGW scientists and advocates kicking and screaming for action. In the rest of the world, lots of people that are turned off any meaningful action…by the kicking and screaming of those AGW scientists and advocates. Little wonder politicians do nothing of any meaning on the topic, apart from when they can spread “pork” and get more votes.


Every once in a while some analysis appears begging the “environmental” movement to change their ways of communicating what they care about:

But the AGWers are still in the dark ages, as far as advocacy is concerned.

Lately the only novelty is that they appear to have decided to be relentless, as if following the old saying that if you keep repeating a lie, eventually it will be taken as truth. But time is not on their side: year-on-year climate fluctuations are larger than any AGW “signal”, as admitted even by RealClimate.

There is so much we can say, think and care about the world in 2020, let alone 2050, when the models say evidence would be so much stronger. And when the news talk about a catastrophe for the 1,000-th time, the impact on the public will be much much smaller than it was 999 times before.


Anybody believing in AGW can keep on lamenting the situation…just please, try to understand: the lament is part of the problem. The existence of scientist-dissenters is not.

Just look at France: where a “green package” was discussed, defined and delivered without anybody running around like headless chickens. Believe it or not, I may have even signed that package myself!

Venus Atmosphere Still A Mystery

From Universe Today: “Although the bright haze of Venus’s atmosphere has been identified, many dark patches have also been observed. So far, there is no explanation for these patches of atmospheric chemicals absorbing solar UV“.

In the meanwhile, raypierre of RealClimate summarizes the latest info about the atmosphere of Venus, but somehow forgets to include the UV absorption mystery (it only shows up as an afterthought, comment #2).

One wonders why? Obsession with consensus and the need to demonstrate there exist such a thing as “climate science” spring to mind.