Shrinking the CSIRO’s multi-million dollar climate cookie jar in the Year of the Monkey was bound to cause a rumble in the jungle and shrieks of alarm. But the primal screams of self-preservation from near and far were a surprise. Allowing that one has no objection to rubbing salt into wounds, here’s a tweet it would be satisfying to send to those smart folk who swear they can “re-engineer global simulations to make predictions down to catchment and paddock scales”. The message: Don’t be surprised when, one day, a lot more of you are put out to grass.
Hell, however warm, hath no fury like an atmospheric astrologer scorned, as CEO Dr Larry Marshall discovered when he revealed new plans for the agency last week (ABC 7.30 report video here).
In a letter to staff, Marshall noted that
CSIRO pioneered climate research … But we cannot rest on our laurels as that is the path to mediocrity. Our climate models are among the best in the world and our measurements honed those models to prove global climate change. That question has been answered, and the new question is what do we do about it, and how can we find solutions for the climate we will be living with?
How, indeed? Just as the ‘underpinning science’ had been overcooked, so was the reaction. The purveyors of ‘settled science’ would have none of it. (See Joanne Nova here.) Professor Matthew England, Deputy Director at the University of NSW’s Climate Change Research Centre, described the letter as ‘jaw-droppingly shocking’. “There seems to be no appreciation of how much this science underpins our nation’s interests,” he said.
England and colleague, Professor Andrew Pitman, director of the UNSW ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, were bound to be upset. The alarmist gravy train has long been stopping at their stations to drop off grants and profile-boosting stenographers posing as reporters for at least a decade, so this news was the first real blood on the tracks.
Dr Graeme Pearman, an ex-CSIRO chief atmospheric researcher, found the new strategy ‘ill-informed’ and ‘silly’.
Pearman: The reality at the moment is that if you ask what global warming will do to rainfall in the Murray-Darling Basin we can’t answer it. More research needs to be done. The idea that we can just simply take what we know now and start to adapt is, I think, quite silly.
President of the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, Tod Lane, also insisted that cutting modelling efforts made no sense. It apparently threatened “our ability to predict future climate” and the inherent risks. “Most of the uncertainty in climate projections is due to uncertainty about the ways to represent physical processes in climate models,” he explained. Well, yes, precisely that.
Kevin Hennessy Principal Research Scientist, Marine & Atmospheric Research, CSIRO, was more specific (here):
(i) difficulties remain in reliable attribution of observed temperature changes to natural or human causes at smaller than continental scales;
(ii) climate models differ in their feedback estimates; and
(iii) uncertainties surrounding regional projections of climate change, particularly precipitation, makes impact assessment difficult.
As a physicist, Marshall presumably was aware that attempting to resolve these ‘difficulties’ would be both problematic and expensive. It would have been what Sir Humphrey called a ‘courageous decision’ to have tipped more agency funds down this bottomless sinkhole.
Roger Jones, another ex-CSIRO climate researcher (1996-2009), shared his dismay with The Conversation.
Jones: Marshall’s letter reveals a lack of insight about what climate models are for and how they can be used. Their job was not to “prove” that the climate was likely to change and that we had to respond. Their main role is to understand how the climate system works and then to use that knowledge to manage risk, make decisions and improve productivity.
Peter Tangney, a science policy-communication researcher at Flinders University, was one of the few public heretics. Like Marshall, he felt the emphasis on ‘producing more and better climate change science’ had delivered little return. The information was just too complex, not user-friendly or produced at temporal and geographic scales that were not particularly helpful or precise.
“The modelling is unlikely to unearth anything profoundly more useful than what we already know about future climate change — although it may be a hard pill to swallow for the climate scientists in (CSIRO’s) ranks.”
Tangney’s posts at The Conversation challenging Jones and others are worth reading. Example:
Professor Jones, I take issue with some of the assertions you’ve made here. In particular, the statements: “[Climate models’] main role is to understand how the climate system works and then to use that knowledge to manage risk, make decisions and improve productivity” and “CSIRO has long been a global leader in presenting … the information in a form that suits decision makers.” These statements seem to assume that an increasingly accurate understanding of climate and future climate change can necessarily lead to better understandings of how to manage risk, make decisions and improve productivity.
Yet, for some time now climate model outputs have been failing in this endeavour. In fact, policy actors when asked have continually stated that these scientific outputs lack usability for adaptation decision-making (Tang & Dessai (2012), Richards et al. (2014) and Tangney & Howes (2015)).
Marshall was forced to make another media statement on February 8. Staff cuts in the Oceans and Atmosphere unit would not be 350 – merely a reduction from 420 to 355. The Cape Grim GHG monitoring station and RV Investigator research vessel were not under threat.
As for the division’s climate models, they “have long been and will continue to be available to any researcher and we will work with our stakeholders to develop a transition plan”. So some kind of research shift from ‘measuring climate change’ to investigating ways of adapting to it seems inevitable.
The week exposed a truth often sidestepped by the warmist orthodoxy: climate models lack genuine predictive power. Yet, as Dr David Whitehouse wrote recently, ‘predictions are the essence of science’.
For a theory or a model to remain credible it has to predict something and that prediction must be compared to reality. Every scientist knows the remark that ‘many a beautiful theory was killed by an ugly fact.’….To my mind the most powerful and convincing proof of a theory or model is what it says about the future. (GWPF, 3 February, 2016)
Vague generalisations about the future do not cut it, nor do the ex post facto ‘attribution’ computer games currently captivating modellers. The Climate Establishment only has itself to blame for the kerfuffle. Things went swimmingly as long as its high priests could get away with making dubious and untestable prognostications about the planet’s climate decades ahead. But shifting the research focus to regions closer to home changed everything. Only a prognosticator with too much skin in the game could fail to see the boondoggle’s demise.
It all began several years ago, with creation of a new cabal, the Attribution of Climate-related Events (ACE) initiative. ACE’s inaugural meeting was held in Boulder, Colorado, on January 26, 2009, at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) Mesa Lab. Attendees included Myles Allen (Oxford University), Martin Hoerling (NOAA, USA), Peter Stott (UK Met Office, Hadley Centre), Kevin Trenberth (NCAR) and David Karoly (University of Melbourne). ACE later released a four-paragraph statement. Its mission would be: “to provide authoritative assessments of the causes of anomalous climate conditions and EWEs” for government agencies and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2013/2014 Fifth Assessment Report (AR5).
ACE’s “conceptual framework for attribution activities” would be: “elevated in priority and visibility, leading to substantial increases in resources (funds, people and computers).” With both a research and operational dimension, it promised to provide “a lot more concrete information in near real-time about what has happened and why in weather and climate.”
But everyone must sing from the same song-sheet: “A consistent use of terminology and close collaborative international teamwork will be required to maintain an authoritative voice when explaining complex multi-factorial events such as the recent Australian bushfires” (my bolding). Three years later, Dr Peter Stott, then Hadley Centre Head of climate monitoring and attribution, and eight colleagues, again stressed the importance of reining in mavericks in a conference paper. There had to be a unified “authoritative voice”. “Unusual or extreme weather and climate-related events are of great public concern and interest,” they noted, “yet there are often conflicting messages from scientists about whether such events can be linked to climate change.” He continued:
“All too often the public receives contradictory messages from reputable experts. If the public hears that a particular weather event is consistent with climate change [DAGW, DACC] they may conclude that it is further proof of the immediate consequences of human induced global warming; on the other hand if the public hears that it is not possible to attribute an individual event, they may conclude that the uncertainties are such that nothing can be said authoritatively about the effects of climate change as actually experienced.” (my bolding)
Imagine the furore if too many citizens begin to suspect that nothing could be said authoritatively about climate change, other than, say that (unpredictable) change is what the planet’s climate (and weather) does; or to question the alleged roles of GHG emissions and AGW in EWE causation. No surprise, then, to see Dr Stott appear on the ABC’s World Today on February 8 to defend the ‘underpinning science” and to add his voice to the chorus of protest against the proposed CSIRO restructuring (transcript here).
Peter Stott: In order to adapt well, you need to keep monitoring, you need to keep observing and we need to continue to develop our understanding. You need that basic understanding and you need to continue to develop that to underpin the services that you deliver. Because if you stop doing that underpinning science, then the services you deliver to the people who want to adapt will be worse and will not be fit for purpose.
So climate modelling has been at a tipping point for some time. To counter increasing reputational assaults, the orthodoxy made a new pitch. It would overcome the “scale challenge” and produce accurate “fine-scale (regional and local) climate projections” (not predictions).
But according to Professor Pitman, there was a “truly scary” catch. To achieve this objective, millions of additional research dollars would be needed to fund the soaring computational costs and deal with a looming data-storage nightmare. Another problem was the “worrying” decline in quantitatively capable graduates, more of whom preferred investment banking to saving humankind from itself and the alleged climate oblivion. Pitman made the comments when presenting the 2013 UWA Joseph Gentilli Memorial Lecture (here). The times below refer to the UWA Access recording of the event.
What are the problems ahead? (37.20min.) Climate science has three problems. The first problem is everything we do is extraordinarily computationally expensive. Not as expensive as the astronomers. We are not as bad as the astronomers yet, but we are working really hard [to get there] (laughter).
Just as a guide, if you divide the globe into one degree-by- one degree cells – about 65,000 cells – and you run it out for 100 years, it means 40,000,000,000,000,000 calculations. If I want to do probability density functions, I have to do this simulation a thousand times and you can do the math.
Pitman and his colleagues knew that to remain relevant — and to justify the global billions of climate research dollars spent annually — they had to offer something new. Alarmist rhetoric about ‘vulnerability to climate change’ in half a century and beyond no longer did the trick. They had to convince governments that more grant money would deliver something useful, such as “much more detailed temporal [daily, hourly] information around extremes”. While for them, the basic science was “settled at the big picture scale”, the “phenomenally interesting” challenge now was to re-engineer global simulations to make predictions at the catchment, regional and paddock scales. (43.40min)
Extreme-weather (EWE) analysis is, however, a tricky business. Reluctant to be caught out over-promising (again), the orthodoxy would have to “manage expectations”. Even the UN-funded World Climate Research Programme described the quest for a EWE science as a “grand challenge”; with its “climate information service” concept only at “first draft” stage.
Any improvement in predicting changes in EWE frequency and intensity would require “improved representation of key processes in climate models” and resolution of other complex issues; with “much work needed to take careful account of uncertainty when delivering forecasts of extremes [EWEs] to users” (Karoly, WGSP, 2012, white paper, I3). Wow.
No wonder Dr John Christy, Office of State Climatology, University of Alabama, told the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space & Technology on February 2 this year, that “climate science is a ‘murky’ science”.
“We do not have laboratory methods of testing our hypotheses as many other sciences do. As a result what passes for science includes, opinion, arguments-from-authority, dramatic press releases, and fuzzy notions of consensus generated by pre-selected groups. This is not science.”