Doomed Planet

Tricks of the climate trade

Want to play the climate game? Make sure you cover all bases and potential outcomes. Discourage attempts to falsify your claims. Never give your critics criteria against which they could test the veracity of your pseudo-predictions and alleged attributions. Insist you know how to separate the “signal” (AGW “fingerprint”) from the “noise in the system” (random weather).

Trick: n. 1. A magical feat or device. 2. An adroit or ingenious act or device, knack; a trick of the trade. 3. Do the trick: (Informal); To produce the right or desired result.

If your ensemble (multi-model) simulations produce a glaring anomaly when compared with real-world data, explain it away by saying: “in this case there must have been more natural variability than we assumed in our models.” Hide uncertainties under a facade of faux confidence. Never hint that an ensemble approach is a neat way to keep your colleagues in the game.

Be harsh with anyone who asks if there could be something awry with model methodologies. Distract attention from your claim that you can “identify” a local weather impact of a global mean temperature rise of less than 1C a century — allegedly due to the presence of 0.0385 per cent of an atmospheric trace gas — in a world where the daily range exceeds 80C (-45C to +45C), and so on.

Dismiss heretics who worry about the uncertainty monster, especially those who claim that “large uncertainties in both the observations and model simulations of the spectral amplitude of natural variability preclude a confident detection of anthropogenically-forced climate change against the background of natural internal climate variability.”

In June last year, The Guardian’s Leo Hickman asked some climate scientists whether it was now acceptable "to blame extreme weather on global warming". Was there a “distinctive [AGW] fingerprint” in extreme weather events (EWEs) unequivocally caused by human GHG emissions?

Some, like NOAA’s Harold Brooks, placed each-way bets: “Our understanding of how global scale atmospheric changes affect tornadoes and severe thunderstorms is that global warming will make some of the [atmospheric] ingredients for them more likely and others less likely. As a result, it appears that long-term trends in tornado occurrence or intensity are unlikely to be large. Even without the planet warming, we would expect to see some years with many tornadoes and others with few tornadoes.” (author’s italics)

Other responses were dicey. Princeton University’s Professor Michael Oppenheimer is a dice-man. The alleged link between recent EWEs and increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions was, for him, “best represented by a ‘loading the dice’ analogy – as the world warms, the likelihood of occurrence (frequency), intensity, and/or geographic extent of many types of extreme events is increasing.”

Professor Michael “Hockey Stick” Mann of Penn State also was keen on “the analogy of loaded dice”. There had been, he said, a doubling in the frequency of record-breaking heat in the US, “relative to what we would expect from chance alone. Records were being broken at “nearly 10 times the rate we would expect without global warming. So there is no question in my mind that the ‘signal’ of climate change has now emerged in our day-to-day weather. We are seeing the loading of the random weather dice toward more ‘sixes’. We are seeing and feeling climate change in the more extreme heat we are witnessing this summer.”

But how confident are they about detecting a climate change signal [DACC] in the “chaotic noise” of near-term weather patterns? One person who appeared to have doubts -– at least three years ago — was Gavin Schmidt, a meteorologist with the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

In a 2009 interview, Schmidt said the problem with climate “predictions” to 2030 and 2050 was that they cannot be tested “in the way you can test a weather forecast”. The reason is that long-term trends take

“…about twenty years to evaluate because there is so much unforced (“natural”) variability in the system that we can’t predict – the chaotic component of the climate system – which is not predictable beyond two weeks, even theoretically. That is something that we really can’t get a handle on. We can only look at the climate problem once we have had a long enough time for that chaotic noise to be washed out so that we can see that there is a full signal that is significantly larger than the inter-annual or the inter-decadal variability. This is a real problem because society wants answers from us and won’t wait 20 years.”

There was a more fundamental problem, too. Climate variables are “horribly non-linear” and “horribly complex”.

“There is never going to be a theory of climate. People have tried, but they all fall pretty much at the very first hurdle. It is ‘irreducibly complex’. And you can’t get away from that.”

Yet researchers claim today they can make meaningful model simulations “with and without forcing due to climate change” (DACC) and “compute differences in the probabilities of particular events.”

While Hickman’s other contributors all sang from the ACE song-sheet, some seemed more cautious. Was it because they had doubts about specifying EWE probabilities with and without DACC? Several emphasised the difficulty “in calculating the contribution of climate change to an individual extreme event”. (author’s italics).

For Michael Wehner, staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the “relevant question” was: how has the risk of an individual EWE changed because of climate change (DACC)?

In Wehner’s view, the risk of EWEs, particularly very severe heatwaves, “has already changed significantly due to AGW. He claimed the chances of the 2003 European summer heatwave, was “responsible for as many as 70 000 additional deaths, at least doubled and likely increased by a factor of 4 to 10.” The chances of the 2010 Russian and 2011 Texas events had “undoubtedly increased,” yet apparently “these events could have occurred without the human changes to the climate.” By 2100, he predicted, today’s most EWEs will seem “relatively normal.”

Some, like MIT’s Kerry Emanuel, felt the orthodoxy could say something like “the annual probability of a heatwave of magnitude A and duration B before DACC was X, but as a result of DACC has increased to Y and is expected to further increase to between Z1 and Z2”. It would take, of course, some work to actually fill in the numbers X, Y, Z1, and Z2……Any statement that went “appreciably” further probably would involve “spin of one kind or another.”

Harold Brooks admitted attribution of EWEs was challenging. “We’re faced with two separate, but related, questions. How much did the planet’s warming contribute directly to the extreme event? The second more challenging question: how much more likely was the event because of a warmer planet?”

But is it possible to determine how any low-probability event (EWE) changes with changes in “average conditions”? The orthodoxy is not only asserting it can do so, but also claims weighted-coin or loaded-dice outcomes are analogous to probabilities in the EWE-space. But is this the case?

“If you flip a fair coin 100 times,” Brooks explained, “on average you get 50 heads, but 95% of the time you’ll get between 40 and 60 heads and, two or three times you’ll get 65 heads. If you get a weighted coin [or loaded dice] that is 55 per cent likely to be heads, it will be 10 times as likely that you’ll get 65 heads. The small change in the average chance means the chance of an extreme [EWE] becomes much more likely.”

Brooks claims this approach can be applied to temperature extremes. But how to determine whether any change in average temperature made it more likely atmospheric flows would be even more likely to occur than just by chance? How, indeed!

UEA’s Dr Clare Goodess did “not believe that it will ever be possible to look at a single event and say definitively if it would or would not have occurred in the absence of human influence. Paradoxically, however, she felt it was possible “to estimate the extent to which human activity has increased the risk of such events occurring. It has, for example, been demonstrated that human influence has more than doubled the risk of a hot European summer like that of 2003 occurring, and substantially increased the risk of flooding which occurred in England and Wales in autumn 2000.”

DACC attribution was, she admitted, “a more challenging task for rainfall and other weather variables than for temperature, and for areas smaller than continents.”

We soon enter the realm of the “seamless prediction paradigm” — and EWE-climate pseudo-prediction. (For those interested in more detail, read this critique by Dr Henk Tennekes, a past director of research at the Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute.)

As for EWE risk analysis, any statement that describes the likelihood of a future climate or weather event occurring in terms of estimated “probabilities” is defined here as a pseudo-prediction.

Example:Calculating how the odds of a particular extreme event have changed provides a means of quantifying the influence of climate change on the event. The heatwave that affected Texas has become distinctly more likely than 40 years ago. In the same vein, the likelihood of very warm November temperatures in the UK has increased substantially since the 1960s.”

The state of climate science today resembles in some ways that of seismology. No seismologist has ever predicted the location and timing of any major earthquake, nor a climatologist a (DAGW-induced) EWE. Unlike the latter, seismologists not only admit they do not know how to do it, most do not expect they will ever know how to do it. Most seismologists therefore resist the temptation to make precise short-term predictions. Some, however, release probability statements, as climatologists are now doing for near-term EWE attribution. Mark Quigley, Senior Lecturer in Active Tectonics and Geomorphology at NZ’s Canterbury University, is one of them.

It is doubtful, however, that this kind of “probabilistic” risk approach will ever protect any community – be it in an active earthquake zone, a cyclonic belt or bushfire region.

Hence even if one accepts the validity of Team ACE’s EWE attribution ambitions, it is difficult to see how “authoritative assessments of EWE risk” would be useful; especially when they are to be “produced shortly after the EWEs in question when interest is at its height.”

ACE’s work has been useful for DACC alarmists, such as Christian Figueres, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Executive Secretary. “It doesn’t take a scientist to connect the dots,” she said late last year. “While none of these events can be exclusively linked to climate change, taken together they indicate we’re already in the midst of climate unpredictability, of a profound disruption of the Earth’s hydrological cycle the effect of which is still unknown.” Climate “certainty” is within reach, apparently, but only if UNFCCC is given the power and money to sort things out.

Everyone who’s anyone is now playing the EWE-climate game: loading dice, yet ignoring the uncertainties (see Part III).

Economist Paul Krugman did it in an op-ed column last July. Rajendra Pachauri, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, did it in Hobart on 15th January this year, when he kicked off the EWE conga line. President Obama did it to “rapturous applause” in his Inauguration speech, vowing to “preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God”, in a burst of rhetoric reminiscent of Al Gore’s Noah period.

“We will respond to the threat of climate change”, Obama promised, “knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations”. (Even more than dumping on them the formidable task of repaying trillions of dollars of national debt?)

Inspired by the decarbonising vibes now radiating from Capitol Hill, our prime minister did it hours later. Singing from the same song-sheet as Figueres et al, she reportedly said that while Australia’s summer EWEs could not be directly attributed to climate change, “the science indicated very clearly climate change means more EWEs.”

Let’s play it again, PM. While EWEs could not be directly attributed to “climate change” — presumably code for DAGW or DACC — the science “indicated very clearly climate change means more EWEs.” Down at the track, this would be a scratched horse. [Climate change, strictly speaking, merely describes a natural process – the changing climate. How could it be a cause of anything?]

Fortunately, not everyone has been duped by the new EWE-speak. When Bill Leak rolled his dice, he came up with this cartoon: “A Combet Nation of Fact and Fiction” (The Weekend Australian, 19-20 January, 2013). A perspiring Combet presents the national weather forecast against the backdrop of a continent in flames. “Our satellite picture shows,” he says unconvincingly, “the carbon tax bringing relief from the sweltering conditions we’ve all been….”

Professor Ross Garnaut, the Canberra Carbon Cargo Cult Club’s former climate change guru, also did it in a recent speech to China’s National Development and Reform Commission. “Climate change,” he warned, “takes us into unknown territory for human civilisation”. Australia’s extreme January heat and bushfires were the “latest of the increasingly common extreme weather events that carry a climate change [DACC] footprint.” (How does a fingerprint become a footprint?)

Garnaut is a dice-man, too. He also likes an each-way bet. He was on-message in Beijing. “The association of EWEs with climate change is complicated and can be confusing, because natural climate variability would anyway have introduced damaging extreme weather events from time to time.” Nevertheless, he claimed “we can characterise the way that global warming has affected weather in probabilistic terms by thinking of outcomes as being the result of the throwing of a standard dice with six faces” and so on. But can we?

This was, he said “the probabilistic sense in which climate scientists should be understood when they say that [while] no particular EWE can be said to be caused by global warming [DAGW], [nevertheless] EWEs will happen more often and the worst will be more extreme than before” [because of it.]  

But can statistical probability be used in this way? Is the dice a legitimate analogy? Is EWE frequency comparable to a dice throw? To answer these questions, we must venture further into Garnaut’s “unknown territory” — and into the belly of the beast.

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