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February 27th 2014 print

Peter Smith

Statistics For Dummies — And Warmists

These breathless reports about the planet never being hotter, take them with a truckload of salt. How can anyone place the slightest credence in claims being advanced by people who fail to grasp, or refuse to grasp, the simple truth about trend lines and temperature

end is nigh“Read all about it! Read all about it! It’s the hottest year on record — except for another five hotter years!” A new twist can be put on the aphorism attributed to Benjamin Disraeli. It is now clear that there are lies, damn lies, and the interpretation of climate statistics.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) reported that last year (2013) tied with 2007 for the sixth-hottest year on record – i.e. since 1850. “This is confirmation of the trend of global warming of the planet,” according to WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud. In case you missed the import, Mr Jarraud added that thirteen of the fourteen warmest years on record have occurred in the 21st Century.

The latest version of the Hadley Centre’s global surface temperature series HadCRUT 4 shows a trend rise of about 0.8 degrees Celsius between 1850 and 2013. This upward trend steepened between around 1910 and 1940 and, following a period of becoming negative between 1940 and 1975, steepened somewhat more acutely between around 1975 and 2000 before leveling.

It seems clear, based on both the surface and satellite records, that since around 2000/’01 — that is, for the last 12 or 13 years — temperatures have plateaued. I don’t really buy the 17-year cessation being bandied about. I think there is too much noise created by the sharp rise in temperature in 1998 to draw firm conclusions until just after the beginning of this century. But form your own conclusions. Data can be sourced from the excellent and universally well-regarded web site woodfortrees.org.

During the last 12 or 13 years, the annual global temperature has sometimes oscillated below the horizontal trend, sometimes above. As a matter of sheer inevitability the above-trend years will turn out to be among the hottest on record because they are coming off a new high plateau. In fact to have an ‘above-trend year’ which is only the joint sixth-highest on record is desultory. It is the very least that the warmists might have hoped for and expected. It is the least that anyone with any knowledge of statistics would have expected.

The same goes for attributing breathless significance to this century having thirteen of the fourteen warmest years. An irreverent sceptic might retort: Yes, you fathead! That is because the temperature was trending up quite strongly prior to 2000.

Put it this way: Suppose it is 2040 and the global temperature has continued to oscillate around a horizontal trend. The CO2 hypothesis will have been totally discredited. Yet the then-head of the WMO would almost certainly be able to claim that 39 of the warmest years have occurred in this century.

We could be generous and assume that Jarraud and his fellow travelers are statistical novices who fell into the trap of attributing profound significance to trivial results. However this seems unlikely. Their statistical skills are probably adequate. Unfortunately this leaves us with an explanation of humbug perpetrated quite deliberately to mislead the unwary and provide headlines for the compliant media.

If only the disingenuous use of statistics stopped it might be possible for warmists and sceptics to sign a non-aggression pact on the matter of the temperature record. I don’t know whether some ‘unconscious’ biases have been at work to dampen more distant trends and jig up more recent ones, as some ‘paranoid’ sceptics think. But the two NASA satellite measuring programs (operating since 1979), one jointly headed by sceptic climate scientist Roy Spencer at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, can surely be relied upon to keep the contemporary record honest enough.

Moreover, if everyone agrees that the earth has materially warmed since 1850 (and they do, I believe) why should a melting of ice and sea level rises be so contentious. Doesn’t this fit the category of the bleeding obvious? Or am I missing some esoteric meteorological point?

The only two battles should be about whether man-made carbon dioxide emissions are the root of the warming since 1975 (the scientific one) and then, assuming for the sake of argument that they are, the entirely separate battle (the technical, practical, logistical and economic one) of what should be done about it. In fact there would be a distinct advantage in agreeing to disagree on the first but for sceptics to accept the ‘precautionary principle’, however much it sticks in their craws, and jump directly to the second.

Solutions which go, among other things, to research and development, across all forms of energy; to minimizing obstacles to the exploitation of gas and nuclear energy; and to adaptation might find common ground among rational warmists and sceptics alike and those in the middle; always provided environmental extremists like the Greens are excluded from the process. Is this optimistic? Probably it is.

Unfortunately the alternative is to continue the madness of trying to price carbon dioxide emissions in a world market which will inevitably reward massive rigging; of spending bucket loads of money on totally ineffective and impoverishing measures; of bribing poor countries to implement inefficient methods of power generation keeping them uncompetitive and dependent; and of regressing to a Dark Ages-collective state of mind which values and promotes cripplingly expensive tokenism over practical solutions.

Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics