09 December 2009

The Science is Settled

This post makes the case for why the science is settled on climate change. Of course, interpreting this statement, which once had its own Wikipedia page, depends entirely upon what one means by "the science." Here I am going to define "the science" as that science of the global earth system which is necessary to open up the possibility that decision makers may wish to consider action on greenhouse gas emissions. Any decision on what action (if any), when, at what costs will result from many factors beyond climate science and different people who decide to act together will necessarily have vastly different views about the state of the science and its importance.

What is this settled science? Thomas Friedman gets it absolutely correct in his NYT column today (emphasis added):

This is not complicated. We know that our planet is enveloped in a blanket of greenhouse gases that keep the Earth at a comfortable temperature. As we pump more carbon-dioxide and other greenhouse gases into that blanket from cars, buildings, agriculture, forests and industry, more heat gets trapped.

What we don’t know, because the climate system is so complex, is what other factors might over time compensate for that man-driven warming, or how rapidly temperatures might rise, melt more ice and raise sea levels. It’s all a game of odds. We’ve never been here before. We just know two things: one, the CO2 we put into the atmosphere stays there for many years, so it is “irreversible” in real-time (barring some feat of geo-engineering); and two, that CO2 buildup has the potential to unleash “catastrophic” warming.

When I see a problem that has even a 1 percent probability of occurring and is “irreversible” and potentially “catastrophic,” I buy insurance. That is what taking climate change seriously is all about.

Friedman is absolutely right about what we know and what we don't know. Debates over action get wrapped up around debates what we know and what we don't know, and these debates are unlikely to be settled any time soon, whether within the scientific community or among the broader public.

The fulcrum on which action rests to decarbonize economies and improve adaptation will not be science, but everything else. The more science is used as such a fulcrum -- especially among activist scientists -- the more potential damage to science itself.

So the next time that you hear that the "science is settled" you can understand that it is settled, but the way that it is settled doesn't provide any answers to questions of politics. Thomas Friedman gets this point:
If we prepare for climate change by building a clean-power economy, but climate change turns out to be a hoax, what would be the result? Well, during a transition period, we would have higher energy prices. But gradually we would be driving battery-powered electric cars and powering more and more of our homes and factories with wind, solar, nuclear and second-generation biofuels. We would be much less dependent on oil dictators who have drawn a bull’s-eye on our backs; our trade deficit would improve; the dollar would strengthen; and the air we breathe would be cleaner. In short, as a country, we would be stronger, more innovative and more energy independent.


Luke Lea said...

As others have noted, perhaps the most damning email from the CRU circle is this July 2005 message from Phil Jones to climatologist John Christy of the University of Alabama: “As you know, I’m not political. If anything, I would like to see the climate change happen, so the science could be proved right, regardless of the consequences. This isn’t being political, it is being selfish.”

In other words, he — like a lot of other climate scientists around the world — has a vested interest in the issue.

What we need is sober, dispassionate analyses of the data by experts outside the field — statisticians and economists especially.

Malcolm said...

Where is the evidence that additional heat is being trapped?

Radiosondes and satellites have never detected the HOT-SPOT that the ASW hypothesis demands.

If there is no HOT-SPOT then an increased greenhouse effect is not the cause of global warming.

Craig said...

I was reading William Briggs blog today. He made the point how the Obama administration stresses "declaration" over proof that greenhouse gases endanger health.

It's superfluous to the question of whether the science is settled, when there is fiat power to make political decisions grounded in "declarations."

ourchangingclimate said...


Nice post. I agree with almost everything, except (rather expectedly by now I guess) the part "-- especially among activist scientists --"

Action to decarbonize our economies depends on the basic points we know, the basic direction of the changes we can expect, as informed by decades of science. It does not depend on scientific details. If the points that Freedman drives home about what we know were generally accepted, scientists wouldn't need to step into the political fray at all. It's the fact that these points are denied and twisted by so many that scientists have to continuously defend the science against being misused.

I don’t understand your continuous attack on scientists, while I find it so obvious that “skeptics” are much more guilty of exactly the thing you accuse scientists of.

What are scientists supposed to do when even the very basics (as Friedman points them out for example) are misunderstood or worse, consciously twisted?


heiderstadt said...

I would agree with Thomas Friedman on his first point, given the way he framed it, but absolutely disagree with his second point, "CO2 buildup has the potential to unleash catastrophic warming", unless he means potentially catestrophic for coastal cities and not Venus hot catestrophic. CO2 levels have been much higher in the distant past and no catestrophic warming occurred. The evidence for this statement is this statement. If Venus hot catestrophic warming had occurred at the much higher CO2 level, we would not be discussing this now.

As for the insurance idea, if the world GNP is $30 trillion, an insurance policy of $45 trillion (as per Copenhagen) sounds like a very expensive insurance policy. I do agree, however, a move toward alternate energy sources will eventually be necessary, but the urgency being espoused is clearly over-the-top and doesn't requre the destruction of the world's economies.

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...


I suggest looking at the ocean heat content analyses:


This is not particularly controversial.

Joel Upchurch said...

Yes, but what do you do when precautionary principles collide? The easiest way to reduce GHG emissions is to build nuclear power plants. Not just in the United States, but in developing countries, where most of the emissions increases are happening. Most environmentalists oppose this because they say that fissile material may be diverted to weapons programs, although this has never happened.

I should also point out that more expensive energy is inconvenient for developed counties, but will lead to starvation deaths in the third world through more expensive fertilizer and higher operating costs for farm machinery.

Stewart Brand has some interesting things to say about the precautionary principle in his new book "Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto".

Tamara said...

I don't agree as fully with that last paragraph as you do. He is very casual about the effects of the "transition period" and basically denies that there could be any negative consequences. I don't think he "gets" the reality of how painful the process will be.

However, I do agree that physical science may not be able to inform our decision any more. What we are really talking about are the social and economic sciences. But, if that is all we have to go by, then what dispassionate measure will we use to weigh the consequences of inaction against those of action. Living in a non-coastal area, in a first world country, the consequences of inaction may not seem to outweigh those of action. Is there really enough altruism in the world that climate change can be the vehicle that moves us into a clean energy future? Or will it be simple scarcity or other economic factors that take use there.

It boils down to this, one way or another we will wean ourselves from fossil fuels. I don't think we ever needed the extra motivation of climate change hysteria to push us to that goal.

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...


Two replies:

1. "If the points that Freedman drives home about what we know were generally accepted, scientists wouldn't need to step into the political fray at all."

These points are generally accepted. Here is some US data:

Any evidence that they are not?

2. You write:

"scientists have to continuously defend the science against being misused"

I'm not sure I understand the imperative. If Senator Jane Doe says that Iran has a nuclear bomb and we should bomb them, is it the responsibility of intelligence analysts in the CIA to go public and say we should not bomb Iran based on their views? No, that would serve to politicize the intelligence community. In such cases, politicians have it out with politicians, citing expertise as they'd like and often misuse occurs. To prevent misuse, we create independent bodies that serve as arbiters or honest brokers. We don't seek to enlist experts in political battles -- we say how well that worked with Bush/Blair and Iraq.

To be clear -- there is a key difference here between individual scientists speaking out -- e.g., Hansen -- and those purporting to represent science writ large or authoritative science institutions, e.g., the IPCC. The former should advocate away as they'd like. The latter do so at the risk of politicizing their community in harmful ways.

As I say in THB, in the sea of politics you can't swim without getting wet.

aber said...

It always good to know what one is talking about, including “science of the global earth system”, which calls itself Climatology. But can or have they define: climate? This has recently been explained as follows (extract from: http://www.whatisclimate.com/b202-open-letter.html ):

“Good science can and is required to work with reasonable terms and explanations. The science about the behaviour of the atmosphere should be no exception. But WMO, IPCC and other institutions simply are using the layman’s term of weather and climate not even recognizing that this is very unscientifically. Actually nowadays climate is still defined as average weather, which may be fine for the general public, but nonsense as scientific term. This can be well demonstrated with the most relevant international legal instrument, namely the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, 1992 (FCCC).

Article 1 of the FCCC providing definitions offers none on the term “climate”, and if it had been based on the common explanation on “average weather”, the word “weather” would have required a definition as well. That the drafters failed to do so is a clear indication that they either lacked the scientific competence to do so, or they knew it would make no sense, because ‘average weather’ is statistics, and remain statistics regardless of any name given to the set of statistics. Instead the FCCC defines in
· Para. 2. “Climate change” means a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.
· Para. 3. “Climate system” means the totality of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and geosphere and their interactions.
Both explanations explain nothing. It is nonsense to say: Climate change means the change of climate, while ‘climate system’ does not say anything more as the interaction of nature. Science is using layman’s terms without being able or willing to define them in a scientifically reasonable manner, or not to use them at all.”
The entire text is available at http://www.whatisclimate.com/

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...



Pielke, Jr., R.A., 2005. Misdefining ‘‘climate change’’: consequences for science and action, Environmental Science & Policy, Vol. 8, pp. 548-561.

The scientifically rigorous definitions of climate change and climate system can be found in the IPCC glossary (www.ipcc.ch), and yes they differ from their political usage, as I explain in the paper above.

minntastic said...

I would suggest that Friedman has it partially right. At least he is admitting we would be acting in the face of uncertainty. But until he acknowledges the cost and tradeoffs associated with any particular action, he really can't be taken seriously. What about buying insurance against the dozen or so threats to public health ranked ahead of climate change in the World Health Report, e.g.? In the world of unlimited resources I'd likely buy all kinds of funky insurance. I'd sure lower the deductible on my car insurance. I enjoy your posts, thanks.

SBVOR said...

Roger sez:

“Any evidence that they are not?”

Dishonestly suggest to the average ignoramus that big bad corporations will foot the bill and he’ll vote for tyranny every time.

Tell the TRUTH -- that the consumer will foot the bill and you get a very different result:



MIKE said...

Solar voltaic is already being taken over by the Chinese. The key element for making electric turbines and motors magnets, neodymium is controlled by China. They have 90% of the reserves. Nuclear power is going no where under the Obama administration. Halting Yucca mountain and stopping a restart reprocessing is an attempt to strangle nuclear energy. What energy independence? Friedman always writes uninformed nonsense.

Dean said...

Embracing Friedman and panning Palin? You're going to lose some of your fan base here.

One thing I would add to Friedman's game of odds. That is one way of saying we aren't sure. But not being absolutely positive is not the same as not knowing anything. This is one game some denialists play - we aren't sure, so we don't know enough to do anything.

The point being that for many potential impacts, those odds are not 50-50. There is a lot of physics and paleoclimate history (separate from the hockey stick) that gives us pretty good (or bad, depending on your usage) odds for some specific impacts. It isn't 100%, but it's far, far above 1%, or 50%.

gmcrews said...

Hi Roger,

Before we buy insurance, we find out how much it will cost. "It's all a game of odds."

How do we actually calculate the odds in this case? By using global climate computer programs. These computer programs are what embody the global climate models that the climate scientists come up with.

But even if "the science is settled," the global climate computer programs will still be wrong. Why? Computer software is notoriously difficult to write. It is a safe bet that no complex program is ever completely bug free. We need to know if our particular programs are bug free enough for our particular tasks. In this case, deciding how much climate "insurance" to buy.

The global climate computer programs must be verified and validated for this usage. So far, they have not. I can't understand why since there is established software engineering consensus on how to verify, validate and accredit complex simulation software.

IMHO, V&V is the best way to overcome the politics and let us start making real progress.

Malcolm said...

There is no long term storage of heat in the oceans.


MIKE said...

"Tell the TRUTH -- that the consumer will foot the bill and you get a very different result:"

This has been true since for a log time. Ask any company who has tried to market an environmentally friendly product at a premium.

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...


Are you sure that is what that paper says? ;-)

roa said...

Your example of Bush/Blair and Iraq is interesting because all the so-called-experts told them that Iraq did have WMDs. If climate scientists are no more reliable than weapons intelligence officials there is no reason to spend any money on climate change.

aber said...

RE: -11- Roger Pielke jr
Your interesting paper “Misdefining ‘‘climate change’’/2005 has been discussed at „whatisclimate“ item: E510 some time ago;
http://www.whatisclimate.com/e510-roger-pielke-jr-misdefining-climate-change.html, appreciating that there was at least someone who picked up the issue, but eventually commenting the paper as follows:
· It is highly to acknowledge that R. Pielke Jr. seems to belong to the few scientists who have taken a more thorough look at the FCCC, as he did in an earlier paper in 2003 as well[3].
· R. Pielke Jr is right in establishing that the FCCC definition of ‘climate change’ is restricted, by handling as a single problem (p.556), and that there is a stark contrast between the FCCC definition and the one used by IPCC[4]. The two text are here reproduced in the boxes.
· R. Pielke Jr seems not to be aware, that it is impossible to define ‘climate change’ if not based on a definition explaining the meaning of ‘climate’ it self.
· R. Piekle Jr. seems not to be aware that the IPCC definition is worth nothing and only a ‘free cheque’ for climate science.
· The fact mentioned by Roger Pielke Jr, although he is by far not the first[6], that IPCC is using a very different definition on ‘climate change’ as the FCCC, is a very serious matter and the United Nations Organization (UNO) which is ultimately in charge of the UNFCCC, should demand clarification by its sub organizations WMO and UNEP, which organize and run the IPCC[7].
Full text at item “E510” at: http://www.whatisclimate.com/index.html

eric144 said...

Bjorn Lomborg's argument is very simple and well argued. The insurance will cost much more than even the most outrageous IPCC projections of damage. More than anything else, that's what makes me believe agw is a scam.

That, and the elephant called emissions trading, sitting on the sofa, drinking your beer with its arm around your wife and using the phone to buy a Mercedes with your credit card.

Abdul Abulbul Amir said...

Friedman is misleading in his second point. The higher cost energy and the resultand lower standard of living will be features long after the transition period.

To lock others in poverty to pay Tom's insurance bill is immoral.

Michael said...

Excellent post, Roger, especially Friedman's conclusion that decarbonizing is a "no regrets" policy. I do prefer Lomborg's approach, however, which argues that we should put some resources into decarbonizing, and more resources into adaptation, especially if in fact C02 is driving climate change, and given that the C02 already introduced into the atmosphere will be there for a long time.

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

-22-24, and others-

The point of the second Friedman paragraph is not that his favored approach is the correct one (readers here for just a while will know I disagree with he preferred approach), but that the path to action requires going well beyond science to issues much more in concert with common interests. On that point, he is absolutely correct.

darcymeyers said...

The insurance comment is interesting. It is the difficulty doing the cost benefit analysis that leads to action resistance.

The costing of inaction is highly deterministic and thus difficult to properly quantify today. There is also the moral question attached to the insured principle- do you spend a bunch of cash insuring the house from fire, while neglecting the deficiencies present today. What do we direct toward mitigation, at the possible expense of future innovation and adaptation-and how is that balanced with the moral imperatives we face today?

BTW...I really enjoy the blog..

Paul Biggs said...

I don't think that CO2 atmospheric residence time is settled science - the IPCC say 50 to 200 years, others say 10 to 20. Nor is the 'enhanced greenhouse effect' unleashing 'catastrophic warming.' 'Consensus' and 'settled science' are designed to stifle essential debate.

We've heard the 'insurance' argument ad nauseum - would you insure a $100,000 house for $1,000,000,000,000 and could you afford the premium?

Sure - replacing carbon fuels is a good idea irrespective of what science does or doesn't say, but the key words are 'affordable' and 'viable.' The consequences of prematurely abandoning carbon fuels are far more catastrophic than any real or imagined global warming. In the UK climate alarmism and the demonisation of CO2 has strangled our energy policy to the point of an imminent electricity generation shortfall. Contrast the much hyped 2000 excess deaths due to the 2003 heat wave with the extra 10,000 excess winter deaths for 2008/09 - 36,700 in total - contributed to by increased energy bills due to 'climate policy' - a policy that Roger Pielke Jr says is "on course to fail." So, not only does the UK have a £180 billion financial deficit, we have a very expensive (£18 billion per year?) canutian climate change act, and we're expected to develop 'renewable energy' and be shafted by the UN IPCC gobal governance/taxation/wealth redistribution agenda in the false name of climate. Welcome to climate policy hell and pass me the cyanide pills.

Anyway - who believes that all the gas, oil and coal won't be burned and instead will be left in the ground?

SBVOR said...


1) You’re unusually unreasonable with your comment moderation today. What’s up? Got the Copenhagen/ClimateGate blues?

2) Okay, we get it. You’re fond of a centrally planned economy. Sensible people are not.

Let’s remember the Ethanol debacle as we examine the next generation of centrally planned stupidity:

A) Friedman sez:
“gradually we would be driving battery-powered electric cars”

Yeah, that’s a really “sustainable” option -- NOT!

B) Friedman sez:
“gradually we would be… powering more and more of our homes and factories with wind”

Yeah, there might be a few problems with that. But, when that fails, we could always harness the power of unicorns and lollipops.

C) Friedman sez:
“gradually we would be… powering more and more of our homes and factories with… second-generation biofuels”

Yeah, because that first generation of biofuels was such a smashing success, eh?

D) Friedman sez:
“We would be much less dependent on oil dictators”

Finally! We agree! (That our domestic Dim politicians are “oil dictators”.) Examine the chart and see what portion of our ENORMOUS domestic resources our central planning IDIOTS have allowed us access to. Now, examine the post.

Why do Socialists NEVER LEARN? Is it congenital?

Ole said...

Do we know?

About the politics: There is a big difference between 'saving' the world because of a not very likely 'tipping point' which calls for a gigantic transformatin of society in nothing but a moment and change of energy supply in a more slow way because you dont want to be dependant on some foreign sources.
About the science: Do we really know these two things? How long does CO2 stay in the atmosphere? IPCC says for very long, but I've seen critics (the wiser guys) saying its a lot shorter - and I don't know what is true how long CO2 stays up there.
Do you Roger Pielke?
If you do find time to answer - I have another question:
Commonly its accepted that there was about 280-290 ppm CO2 back there in the 18th century, but is it true - or is it a result of cherry picking by Callendar in 1940 who, if he had used the complete dataset would have reached 335 ppm. Do you have any comment?

Will Howard said...

I agree, in part, with Friedman in characterizing the climate-change risk question as the classic insurance problem. What we don't have in climate science are the same risk statistics the insurance industry has for other risks. Where are the climate "actuarial tables" for the risk associated with, say, a doubling of CO2 in a century?

We can get some insight from paleoclimate archives but these are imperfect "experiments" (to use the term loosely) because more than one variable was changing at once in some cases (e.g. studying Cretaceous climate when the arrangement of continents and ocean basins was different) and/or we have climate fluctuations for which we don't know the forcing, if any (Little Ice Age, Younger Dryas). In the latter two cases it it doesn't seem to have been GHGs because we have ice-core records of what the GHGs were doing at the time. The Pleistocene ice-ages provide the closest thing we have to a "sensitivity test" under fluctuations in GHGs of similar amplitude to the human impact, and close-to-modern surface boundary conditions, and where we know at least one external forcing (orbital variations) and have constraints on at least some of the feedbacks, namely GHGs, land cover, and albedo. (see Hansen et al. 2007)

So let me play devil's advocate here and question the relevance of whether there was or was not a Medieval Warm Period (indications in some proxy records suggest there may have been, though of limited spatial extent; see Mann et al., 2009). We are now changing the game with a new perturbation via greenhouse gases and if the current warming really is due to GHGs it should have a distinctive spatial and temporal "fingerprint" that distinguishes it from other putative forcings. We can't (yet) reconstruct the fingerprints of past climate events like the Medieval Climate Anomaly (Mann's term) because we don't have the coverage (e.g. paleo-estimates of what was happening in the stratosphere) so can't test as for the current warming.

Hansen, J., et al. (2007), Climate change and trace gases, Phil. Trans. Roy.l Soc. A:, 365(1856), 1925-1954, doi:10.1098/rsta.2007.2052.

Mann, M. E., et al. (2009), Global Signatures and Dynamical Origins of the Little Ice Age and Medieval Climate Anomaly, Science, 326(5957), 1256-1260, doi:10.1126/science.1177303.

Frontiers of Faith and Science said...

Unless you have made a major change in direction, or can explain more fully what you mean by the phrase 'the science is settled', you are going to leave more than a few people wondering just what you mean.
If we pursue stupid policies, such as ruining the landscape with environmental hazrds like windmills, we are not going to be OK whether or not AGW turns out to be true.
The only question that I believe needs to be answered is this:
Are the claims, increasingly shrill, that we are facing a CO2 driven climate catastrophe accurate?
If we are not, we do not need to do much of what we are doing. If we are, the question is if AGW inspired policies as currently offered will help?
In a sense, as I read your post, it seems like you are punting. That seems to be a new perspective.
Could you please clarify your stance a bit more?

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...


Where have I ever said anything different?

If we pursue "stupid" policies that would be a bad thing, I agree. But "stupid" won't be determined by science.

We must make decisions under uncertainty and ignorance. So the questions that you ask probably cannot be answered to your, my, or many people's satisfaction. Sorry. So we have to think about the issue differently. See Mike Hulme's recent op-ed in the WSJ on this subject (linked last week).

Jeff said...

I would say there is substantial uncertainty as to how long CO2 stays in the atmosphere. I also strongly disagree that the policies will strengthen any country. They are reckless, he also fails to mention that not just energy but every single product on the planed will increase in price at the same time as additional taxes are taken.

Comic's good though
Jeff Id

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

by email from Bart Verheggen:

"Roger (9),

On your first point, see eg Doran and Zimmermann (citing the Gallop poll) for evidence that the public has a very different view than the scientists do. Esp Freedman’s second point (strong human influence on
current and future climate changes, with very likely detrimental consequences) is not as widely shared among the public as it is amongst scientsts. Most polls I’ve seen put it at around 50% of the population who believes human influence is significant.

On your second point, it all depends if the science is being misused. If there is a political battle about how to deal with an epidemic, then I’d hope they base their views at least partly on scientific knowledge. Of course there are many other things to consider, but if a politician misrepresents the science to bolster their point, than I’d sure hope some medical professionals will stand up in public and say “He is mistaken when he sais such and such”. And if the medical professionals see a very dangerous situation approaching if we don’t
deal with it, they should likewise not be afraid to say so. They shouldn’t narrow down the options, but saying “we should deal with
this situation before it gets out of hand” is entirely appropriate and even necessary. That is what I see “activist” scientists as you call
them doing. What’s wrong with that? What are scientists supposed to do when even the very basics (as Friedman points them out for example)
are misunderstood or worse, consciously twisted?


Roger Pielke, Jr. said...


1. Here is a recent World Bank Poll, I'd suggest that it strongly resonates with Friedman's two points:


The question is not whether the public believes everything that scientists do. The question is whether they believe that climate change is a problem worth action, and they do, overwhelmingly so.

2. I don't disagree with what you say but I do think that you have to distinguish between leadings cientific institutions and the behavior of individual scientists.

I once interview Frank Press, former presidential science advisor and then NAS president, and he told a story about why the NAS never did a report on "nuclear winter." the reason he said was that academy members joined together to issue an advocacy statement on the topic, undercutting his ability to put together what would appear to be a fair committee on the topic. So while I have no problem with individual scientists speaking out in general, I think that leading organizations need to better respect the distinction between advice and advocacy. And in course, in all cases stealth advocacy is no good.

Abdul Abulbul Amir said...

One thing I have always wondered about in paleoclimate reconstruction is how non-quantifiable events are treated. It seems much of the evidence for the MWP does not lend itself to a time series plot. Examples include farming in Greenland, a tree line hundereds of meters higher than today, written accounts of vineyards farther north than today, Viking graves in what is now permafrost, and trees growing 100km or 200km farther north than today.

Is this kind of evidence simply ignored since it does not fit on a time series plot?

ggonzalez said...

I don't necessarily agree that the science is settled according to your (barely intelligible) definition in the post.
I happen to support the alternative energy arguments raised by Friedman based on energy independence and resource depletion concerns. However, the policy choices based on these concerns are not the same as those based on a policy geared towards fighting AGW and the residual costs involved in fighting an unproven threat could be substantial.
The precautionary principle as outlined in the article is not particularly convincing. Some say there is a not insignificant chance that we are heading towards decades of cooling and perhaps an extended little ice age. The chances of this are maybe 1%. What does the precautionary principle dictate my doing?
Gabriel Gonzalez
Gabriel Gonzalez

Skip said...

Of course we must make decisions under uncertainty and ignorance. That's why so many of us would object to the characterization, especially, of "catastrophic" consequences to even the extreme edges of the IPCC projections as settled science.

The AR4 WGII report is interesting reading on this. But the way that it was put together is subject to, in my view, extreme confirmation bias. When you put together a group of stakeholders each looking for risks in their corresponding areas of expertise, of course that's what you're going to end up with. And even the IPCC report recognizes that at low levels warming would have many benefits.

Take for example, Chapter 8, the chapter on health effects. There are many, many different risks listed, and most of the individual ones are quite plausible. But a large category of them basically boil down to "warmer temperatures lead to more things growing, and those things include pathogens, so disease will rise".

On its face this is probably true, except that it basically ignores the offsets to health that come from a rising standard of living. And unless you start with the premise that we cannot expand the global output, then even the poorest country's standards of living should be rising.

Mike Smith said...

Here is another new poll indicating the public is more concerned about Cap n' Trade being a drag on the economy than "global warming." www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601070&sid=ag35PRefGeIc

The fatal flaw in Friedman's analysis that there is no discussion of the potential for cooling. That probability is more than 1%, too (although I am agnostic as to how much higher it might be).

Solar activity continues to go south: http://wattsupwiththat.com/2009/12/09/solar-geomagnetic-activity-is-at-an-all-time-low-what-does-this-mean-for-climate/ Is this important? We don't know.

It is entirely conceivable that what we do to prevent warming might backfire if cooling is the actual problem.

AMac said...

Will Howard (#30) writes --

"We can get some insight from paleoclimate archives but these are imperfect "experiments"... because more than one variable was changing at once in some cases..."

As an outsider, I am much more troubled by the statistics of paleoclimatologists' "experiments" than by the difficulties posed by disentangling multiple variables.

In brief, I think the level of methodological rigor that is standard in paleoclimatology would be found to be grossly deficient in most other fields with a quantitative focus. The example I'm most familiar with is clinical trial design. I suspect many or most engineers would react with dismay as intense as my own, if they spent much time looking under the paleoclimate hood.

For instance, you cite Mann et al (Science, 2009). Like Mann et al (PNAS, 2008), this paper uses the now-notorious Lake Korttajarvi (Tiljander) varve proxies in its reconstructions--in an Upside-Down manner.

I invite readers to reflect on what it means when Mann et al achieve paleotemperature reconstructions with acceptably small residuals, when some of the data sets that have gone into building them are employed such that Warm is read as Cold and vice-versa.

There are a number of possibilities. I don't think any of them lead to depictions of past climate that are anywhere near as robust or as precise as their accompanying confidence intervals indicate.

More troubling still is that the climatology "community" accepts this level of performance in the peer-reviewed literature. In some other fields, it would be seen as scandalous.

Raven said...


I emphatically disagree with the premise that nothing is lost if we act and CO2 turns out to be a non-issue because spending on that money on CO2 will suck money away from every other worthy cause whether it is cleaning up real pollution or direct assistance to people in need.

The Canadian Oils Sands is a good example because the solid waste produced during extraction is a huge environmental problem and money could be spent today cleaning it up. However, if these operations are slapped with huge taxes to offset their CO2 emissions you can bet that governments will ignore the solid waste problem. Similar trade offs will exist almost everywhere.

For this reason, we should not be considering any CO2 policies that cost too much and that would likely make it impossible to set targets for emissions reductions.

Craig said...

There is a YouTube vid making the rounds. It is of a 6th grader who studied the settled science on the urban heat island effect: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F_G_-SdAN04&feature=player_embedded#

Seems like he deserves a scholarship for his effort.

morpork@blueyonder.co.uk said...

To get back to the original posting, I have a couple of questions:

1) Why does Friedman, while stating "because the climate system is so complex..." then propose a linear outcome ("CO2 buildup has the potential to unleash “catastrophic” warming"), hedging his bets by claiming that a 1 per cent probability of something dreadful happening would be enough for him to buy insurance. Really? For everything? Guess he's a belts 'n' braces sorta guy. And where did he get that 1% figure from anyway? Interviewing Mr Dell Keyboard by any chance?

2) Why do you, Roger - who I would have thought would know something of chaos theory and how rudimentary our present understanding of it is - go along with Friedman's shift of thinking from complex to linear? The bright shiny future Friedman portrays ("We would be much less dependent on oil dictators who have drawn a bull’s-eye on our backs; our trade deficit would improve; the dollar would strengthen; and the air we breathe would be cleaner"), apart from being politically inspired, is not necessarily be all the outcomes that would result from the measure(s) he endorses and you seem to tacitly agree with.

No, sir: the science is NOT settled. In a complex system such as the Earth, its climate, the Universe and everything, how could it be, other than in the clay-bound imaginings of politicians and commentators?

eric144 said...

Friedman's oil dictators remark echos recent statements from Obama, Brown and others.

The Anglo American oil empire basically owns the middle east oil fields. The dictators Mr Friedman has in mind are the two most hated men amongst liberal and conservative neocons, Putin and Chavez.

Here is full on vilification from Friedman


If the conflict in Georgia were an Olympic event, the gold medal for brutish stupidity would go to the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin.



But right now, Chávez, Ahmadinejad and all their petrolist pals think we are weak and will never bite the bullet


There is a cold, but rapidly warming war going on in the world today, most people aren't even aware of. Ever wonder why Iran hasn't been invaded ?

Jerusalem Post

Croatia has recently sold advanced S-300 air defense missile systems to Iran, a newspaper in Zagreb reported this week amid conflicting opinions in Israel over whether Teheran has obtained the advanced anti-aircraft system.

Iran has purchased an enormous number of anti-aircraft missiles from Russia, some of which, according to Mossad sources, are S-300 missiles, considered among the most advanced in the world. These missiles have been deployed around Bushehr and other strategic targets," Bergman writes.


jae said...

"Here I am going to define "the science" as that science of the global earth system which is necessary to open up the possibility that decision makers may wish to consider action on greenhouse gas emissions."

I guess I don't understand this. ANY amount of "science" allows such a "possibility." But strong actions demand strong evidence. It is not PRUDENT to consider changing the whole course of civilization, based on the scant amount of data we have that MIGHT show that mankind is affecting the climate. There are a couple of reasons for grave doubts: (1) There are hundreds of studies (and history books, even) that indicate that the MWP was as warm or warmer than today, creating doubt about any CO2 connection. (2) Virtually NONE of the "fingerprints" in the models have been borne out by empirical data (no "hot spot," the 12-15 year "hiatus," thickening ice in Antartica, etc.)

And: HEAT IS NOT TRAPPED by "greenhouse gases"!!!

And only a fool would spend as MUCH as is contemplated by these Copenhagen doomsdayers on insurance for a 1% risk!!!!

John M said...

I've never bought into the "insurance" analogy with regard to "doing something" about climate change.

Classical insurance does not prevent bad things from happening. It spreads the risk associated with a potential loss. In other words, it provides a benefit when bad things happen. If we really wanted an insurance policy agains climate change, we would collect premiums, invest the money (and I mean truly invest it) and not pay anything out until damage occurs.

I doubt if that's what people have in mind when they talk about "insurance against climate change".

But along the lines of several comments above, here is the Wikipedia article on insurance.


Granted, insurance companies have some programs aimed at educating their policy holders on ways to avoid losses, and may even inspect a property before insuring it, but this is a very minor component of how insurance works. In this regard, the article does mention early efforts by Ben Franklin to prevent fires, but his solution was to refuse coverage for those who did not follow his guidelines, not to force people to follow his guidelines.

I'm not sure I can make any of the seven criteria outlined in the Wikipedia article apply to any of the proposed "insurance" policies for the Earth's climate.

Stan said...


Pardon me, but your hubris is showing. You don't KNOW anywhere close to as much as you think you do. Studies which have never been audited or replicated don't prove anything. And even assuming that there are some studies which purport to establish a little of what Friedman wrote, there is no science anywhere which establishes a basis for declaring potential catatrophe. That's just talking out his butt. He desperately needs a course in logic.

I'm really surprised at you.

Will Howard said...


I agree that it would be best to get "back to basics" and look at the proxy data before any transformations to get a better idea of the robustness (or not) of proxy signals. I cited Mann et al. (2009) because it is the most recent example I know of in which a Medieval Warm(er?) Period is suggested. My intent was not to endorse or attack this particular reconstruction, simply to cite it as an example.

I've been re-examining Osborn & Briffa (2006), which looked at the stats of a set of temperature-sensitive proxies (mostly tree-rings) to see if there were anomalous values in any time intervals of the past 1200 years, without going the next step of attempting to calibrate the proxies in terms of temperature. They seem to see unusual excursions in those data sets in the 20th Century, as well as some warmth in the Medieval period in some records. The nice thing about their presentation is that you can see the normalized individual time-series plotted as z-scores and see that some of them show downward trends into the late 20th Century, so you get a sense of the spatial and temporal patterns (their Fig. 1). We can also ask the question might there be other variables than temperature driving the anomalies? (and we know these proxies can be sensitive to variables other than temperature). Some of these records are themselves composites of indices constructed using PCA or other compositing approaches (e.g. W. USA regional), so it would be useful to strip away all but individual proxy time series and see what happens. They also show, the supplemental data, the correlations of each proxy t.s. with temperature over an instrumental overlap period (not specified?) so you could do their analysis only with proxies that have high R^2 with temp, for example. To me this type of analysis is a lot more intuitive than the Mann EOF-style constructions.

( Caveat : Someone may have already done this so best to check the literature before re-inventing the wheel)


Osborn, T. J., and K. R. Briffa (2006), The spatial extent of 20th-Century warmth in the context of the past 1200 years, Science, 311, 841-844, doi:10.1126/science.1120514.

jae said...

Well, the modern warming period, if it is factual, IS NOT UNPRECIDENTED, and that is an ESSENTIAL point in this almost one-sided debate. Shame on any "climate expert," including the "policy wonks" that do not recognize this issue.

What say you, Roger?

Trey said...

Thanks for the provactive article. (I don't know if it was intended that way.) I've read your opening statement a few times and your responses. Maybe I'm being dense, but I still haven't latched on to your meaning of "the science is settled".

Using your comment "We must make decisions under uncertainty and ignorance" and Friedman's "the climate system is so complex" quote, are you implying that "the science is settled" means that it's a fact that climate science is so incredibly complex that humans can not hope to predict anything beyond the statement that modern man alters his environment, along with the lemma that most likely the change is for the worse? I'm honestly not trying to put words in your mouth -- I'm just in need of clarification.

Or are you implying that hypothesis 2a (http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.com/2009/11/alternative-hypotheses-about-climate.html) is the one and only way to understanding climate change in the last ~100 years?

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...


I don't know if change is for the worse or not, though it clearly could be for the worse.

And while I am not I climate scientist, I'd say that 2a makes far more sense (of the common kind) than to think that a single variable dominates the global earth system. However, the policies I'd recommend are not so sensitive to the difference (see the next post). Thanks.

Trey said...

Regarding the precautionary principle, I'm sorry I don't buy it. (I also didn't buy it when Cheney and Co. got us into Iraq -- I try to take a deep breath and relax when I'm exposed to scare tactics.)

Let's use the precautionary principle for the other side. What if there's a 1% chance that Copenhagen/EPA/Cap-n-trade/etc. would lead to global economic collapse? Example: alternative energies are mandated and phased in but can not supply even a fraction of the current energy intensity. U.S. farms can't provide enough food, food prices rise, wealthy can afford it, most others can't, panic insues, US economy collapses, the rest of the globe follows. Remember, this is just a what-if, but I bet someone could convene an intergovermental panel of experts that could come up with evidence from economic science supporting this scenario ;)

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...


On the PP, I don't buy it either:


cassandra said...

Roger, I have been following your excellent blog for the past weeks but this post makes me cringe. We do agree that anthropogenic climate change (either cooling or warming) is real and there are good reasons to look for alternative energy sources, or to improve existing technologies to have a cleaner environment.

But introducing the Precautionary principle to the political debate is intellectual laziness, if not outrageous. Remember the rationale for the 2003 war on Iraq? Should we take drastic actions to mitigate our supposedly-yet to be proven - negative impact on the environment via climate change? Is run-away greenhouse warming proven? Should I stop driving because there is a non-zero chance that I might die in a road accident? Besides a road accident might kill me immediately whereas global warming won't. Should we base a drastic economic policy on carbon dioxide emissions based on unaudited climate models? The science is not settled and the precautionary principle cuts both ways. It doesn't make the science settled. It just muddles up debate and allows people to make irrational decisions.

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...


I have a whole chapter on the decision to got to war in Iraq in THB. And I am no an of the PP, nor do I endorse it in this post.



DeWitt said...


AC generators and motors do not need to use permanent magnets. PM generators may be lower maintenance, so that would be an advantage for their use by the Chinese and other less developed countries. But in that case, they can't make it too expensive or no one who might need one could afford it.

Malcolm said...

The Douglas paper highlights the AGW prediction that culmulative oceanic heat storage would eliminate interannual fluctuations in climate is not factual.

There is no future heat in the saltwater pipeline. The oceans will not come to the aid of AGW.

So if there is no HOT-SPOT in the atmosphere and no HEAT-IN-THE-PIPELINE in the oceans where does that leave AGW?

Where else can we hide the heat?

Sharon F. said...

We should do something..but how about a "Manhattan project" like effort to develop cheap low carbon technologies? So that changing to a reduced carbon economy is relatively painless.. there are thousands of policy options, it seems to me only a few of which have been explored; especially those supported by vested interests in "market mechanisms."

Levy said...

there is another way, very violent of saying that the science is settled:

"Gordon Brown attacks 'flat-earth' climate change sceptics"

DeWitt said...

Sharon F.,

The Manhattan Project was at least as much engineering as science. The energy output from nuclear fission was a known quantity, especially after Fermi's nuclear reactor experiment in Chicago. The question was how to use it to make a bomb. Several approaches were investigated in parallel. Two succeeded resulting in Fat Man and Little Boy. Name me one of your thousands of new cheap low carbon technology options that has demonstrated similar feasibility but needs a massive investment of time and money (a Manhattan Project) to achieve large scale practicability.

jgdes said...

Malcolm says:
"So if there is no HOT-SPOT in the atmosphere and no HEAT-IN-THE-PIPELINE in the oceans where does that leave AGW?
Where else can we hide the heat?"

Never underestimate the creativity of "error" adjusters:

There's an entire industry in adjusting raw data to resemble what we should expect from a warming planet.

John M said...

#58 and #60

I guess I spend an inordinant amount of time musing about analogies, but regarding the Manhattan Project and the prospects of a similar effort decarbonizing the economy, I think it's worth pointing out that the Manhattan Project didn't "denitroize" the World's armament industries. It certainly had a huge impact on geopolitical relationships, but traditional armaments are doing just fine.

This isn't just an esoteric point. When we hear the Al Gore's of the world talk about a "carbon-free" electricity supply by 2018, they simply ignore obvious realities. In a different time and age it wouldn't have even been considered worth commenting on such nonsense, but a huge number of people now take such claims seriously.

Can anyone name any technology that ever had such a profound impact on such a huge existing infrastructure?

I can only think of a handful of such "shut down" technologies, all on a much smaller scale. Hand held calculators essentially destroyed slide rules in a couple of years, LCD projectors deep-sixed slide projectors and overhead projectors, and PCs stomped typewriters. Can anyone come up with anything else that justified people setting aside or throwing out perfectly good and operational items or technologies for the new things? I'm not talking new Microsoft releases, which seem to have obsolescence written on the box. I'm talking distinctly new technologies.

Even LCD TVs didn't cause most people to throw out perfectly working CRT TVs. They upgraded and moved the old TV to a bedroom or basement, or waited for the old TV to die. Automobiles and trucks took decades to completely displace horse drawn conveyances. (If I can believe my Three Stooges DVDs, horse-drawn milk wagons were still present in urban areas in the 30s). Cell phones are slowly causing some people to forgo land lines, but most people didn't immediately throw out their home phones. Refrigerators? Ralph and Alice still had an "ice box" in the 50s. (Hmmm, maybe I'm revealing too much about where I get my outlook on life.)

So while a huge influx of government money and massive government programs may have an impact, it's important to not lose sight of the fact that fossil fuel plants are going to be with us for a long, long time.

Luke Lea said...

I get the uneasy feeling that Roger Pielke Jr. in this post is trying to position himself; that is, he is acting more like a politician than the disinterested and intelligent climate policy analyst, and teacher, from whom I and no doubt a great many more have learned so much.

alanw said...

"When I see a problem that has even a 1 percent probability of occurring and is “irreversible” and potentially “catastrophic,” I buy insurance."

You can only buy insurance when both the probability of an event and the cost of it are known. That enables a premium to be calculated.

In the case of climate change, neither are known.

ScottGA said...


I don't know all of the engineering challenges, but I would think fusion power would fit that bill. The science around it is known.

An alternative where we've already met the engineering challanges is fission. A government program to mass produce nuclear plants would be more comparable to the Interstate Highway System than the Manhatten Project though.

terry said...

On the topic of "the science is settled," it seems to me that there is no science at all.

The basis for belief in catastrophic global warming from carbon dioxide emissions is the IPCC's computer models. The assumption of a cause and effect relationship between the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide and the global average temperature is built into each of these models.

The assumption would be lent empirical support were the predictions of the models to be statistically validated. However, these models do not make predictions. Instead, they make "projections." According to the IPCC 2007 report (Chapter 8), the models are not statistically validated. Instead, they are "evaluated."

A prediction is a proposition which states the outcome of a statistical event. In such an event, a prediction is made, a specified period of time elapses and the outcome becomes available for observation. Under the methodology of science, a predictive hypothesis advances to the status of "theory" if and only if each of its predictions is identical to the associated outcome in a long sequence of independent observed events. A model that susceptible to being tested in this way is said to be "falsifiable." Falsifiability is a condition that must be fullfilled for a theory to be "scientific."

The IPCC's "projection" is a mathematical function which maps the time to the computed global average temperature. As such, a projection supports comparison of the computed to the measured temperature. Chapter 8 makes it plain that, for the IPCC, "evaluation" means "comparison." It does NOT mean "statistical validation." In fact, statistical validation would be impossible pending identification of the independent observed events whose outcomes are predicted by the models.

A projection does not support falsification of the model. As the associated model is not falsifiable, it does not provide us with a scientific theory.

From all of the above, I conclude that the basis for belief in catastrophic global warming from carbon dioxide emissions is not a "settled science." This basis is, instead, argument from authority. The IPCC argues that we should believe in its models because this belief is supported by a "consensus" of scientists. Few journalists or policy makers grasp the subtlety that, in arguing from authority, the "scientists" of the consensus are not acting like scientists.

DeWitt said...

#65 ScottGA,

I did say new didn't I? I should probably have gone with my first instinct when writing my post and specifically ruled those technologies out. Billions of dollars and lots of man hours are already being spent on fusion power. See ITER for example. Even the Bussard fusion reactor concept has significant research funding. For any sort of fission, we don't need research and development as much as a massive PR campaign to overcome the years of disinformation from the anti-nuclear activists.

jae said...


Luke Lea said...

Friedman writes: "When I see a problem that has even a 1 percent probability of occurring and is “irreversible” and potentially “catastrophic,” I buy insurance."

You know, Roger Pielke, this is not "absolutely" true. It depends on the price of the insurance policy. You may not be able to afford to buy insurance without going into bankruptcy In that case you just have to take a chance.

Furthermore there is no way to share the risk with climate change. We are one planet.

G. D. said...

Are you referring to the Thomas Friedman that thought the economy and the structure of international trade looked good in 2006? Or the Thomas Friedman who thought the Iraq War was a good idea and would be concluded with a minimum of casualty, cost and time? Oh, wait - same guy.

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