Implications of recent climate science controversies

February 18, 2010

Julian Hunt.jpgJulian Hunt is visiting professor at Delft University and formerly director general of the UK Meteorological Office. The opinions expressed are his own.-

In the past few weeks, there has been a steady stream of stories highlighting major concerns over scientific evidence relating to climate change.  One example has been the world-wide furore relating to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) assertion that all Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035.

Going forwards, as the UK Government Chief Scientist Professor John Beddington has stated strongly, standards of openness about sources, verification and presentation must be at the highest level.

The most regrettable implication of recent events is that further confusion has been sown amongst global publics about climate change.  What I believe most people want now is enlightenment, not further argument, about what might be the gravest issue confronting humanity in the twenty first century.

One of the key challenges for scientists and indeed politicians is communicating the reality of climate change to global publics in an accurate and intelligible way.  Contrary to belief in some quarters, the leading models that forecast global climate temperature in decades ahead are reliable and this is strongly supported by satellite data.

Dismissive views expressed about climate predictions are often based on the uncertainty of long range weather forecasts.  However, this is false because even sceptics know how long it takes to heat water in a sauce pan and that it does not depend on understanding the eddy movements in the pan (which are analogous to weather patterns and are only approximately described by models).

What is needed is more openness and clarity about the huge complexity of the climate change phenomenon.  For instance, over the last decade, while the earth’s land surface has been warming overall, trends of weather and climate records reveal larger and more unusual regional and local variations — some unprecedented since the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago.

Among such warning signs are the disappearing ice fields around the poles and on all mountain ranges, more frequent droughts in Africa and now in wet regions (such as the 2006 drought in Assam India, previously one of the wettest places in the world), floods in dry regions (as recently, the worst floods in 50 years in northwest India), and ice storms in sub-tropical China in 2008 (for the first time in 150 years).

What these data patterns underline is that, while climate change is a reality, it is impacting regions and indeed sub-regions of the world in very different ways.

Although such variations are approximately predicted by global climate models such as the IPCC’s, these data-sets need buttressing with more local measurements and studies for sub-national governments, industry and agriculture to better understand their climatic situation and develop reliable and effective strategies to deal with all the ways that climate change affects their activities and well being.

Post-Copenhagen, adopting this approach is especially crucial as we may be heading towards a future in which no long-term, comprehensive successor to the Kyoto regime is even politically possible at the international level.  One of the chief flaws in the Copenhagen negotiations was the fact that the negotiations were aimed at an ambitious top level deal that did not account for political imperatives in developed and developing countries.

Experience shows that an ‘bottom-up’ approach works very effectively.  Publics and businesses are far more likely to believe local monitoring reports on climate change.  Moreover, it is only when sub-national areas learn how they will be specifically affected that grassroots action can often be aroused.

This latter lesson was one I learned as a City Councillor in Cambridge in the 1970s when I helped introduce air pollution measurements to show the effects of traffic in the city’s town centre.  Once the high air pollution was measured and better understood by local people, traffic control measures were quickly introduced.
I am therefore delighted at the increasing numbers of regional monitoring centres across the world which, by communicating and interpreting climate change predictions and uncertainties, are contributing towards local adaptation plans:
•    In China, where provinces require targets for power station construction, regional environmental and climate change centres are now well developed.
•    In the United States, a recent report has highlighted the value of non-official centres, such as a severe storm centre in Oklahoma, which gives independent advice to communities and businesses, while relying on government programmes for much of the data.
•    In Brazil, a regional data centre is providing data and predictions about agriculture and deforestation and informs legislation about policy options.

What this activity points to is the need for a broader global network of such centres to support national climate initiatives, and to facilitate international funding and technical cooperation in delivering the right information to the right place, at the right time.

Local actions can only be effective if measurements of climate and environment are made regularly and are publicised as well as information about targets, and projections of emissions.  Experience shows that full exposure is needed about what is happening, what is planned, and how every individual can be involved (as the Danes show by their community investment in wind power).

Moreover, as legislators in Globe (Global legislators for a balanced environment) and city governments across the world are already putting into practice, adaptation to climate change also needs to build on existing knowledge and infrastructures in local settings.

Forming loose collaborative networks will enable regional facilitation centres, their experts and decision makers to learn from one another and also draw upon the resources of existing national and international databases and programmes, such as the growing number of consortia linking major cities, local governments, and the private sector.

The overall message is clear.  ‘Localisation of action and data’ must be the post-Copenhagen priority if we are to facilitate public understanding of climate change and truly tackle the menace it poses.


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“For instance, over the last decade, while the earth’s land surface has been warming overall”

Err, this is not true. Over the last decade, global temperatures have fallen. There seems to be no disagreement over this, even with UEA and Nasa.

“public understanding of climate change and truly tackle the menace it poses”

The menace posed seems to be coming from politicians such as the person who wrote this somewhat biased piece.

Posted by Grant MacDonald | Report as abusive

So we have:

“what might be the gravest issue confronting humanity”

Or it might not – as yet we haven’t any varifiable data that this is even an issue. Wasn’t the original hypothesys that brought GW into the lime light something on the grounds that by the year 2000 CO2 forcing will out weigh all other GW forcings. This has not happened (“the warming rates for all 4 periods [1860-1880, 1910-1940, 1975-1998 and 1975-2009] are similar and not statistically significantly different from each other” -Professor Jones) ergo initial hypothesys is false hence no “gravest issue confronting humanity”.


“One of the key challenges for scientists and indeed politicians is communicating the reality of climate change to global publics in an accurate and intelligible way.”
No the key challenge for scientists is science. Science; where the scientific method disproves hypothesys like the one above.

“Contrary to belief in some quarters, the leading models that forecast global climate temperature in decades ahead are reliable and this is strongly supported by satellite data.”

All models are wrong but some are useful – E.P Box.
Last set of satellite data available merely highlights El Niño and La Niña events. The 30 years worth of data is far to short to determine worthwhile trend analysis (except to show where a rise in CO2 does not have a corresponding rise in temperature).

I haven’t the time to list all the other misconceptions and misinformation within the above article – I have to earn a living – I have no lovely grant that relies on AGW to be true or investments wrapped up in AGW mitigation companies (yes I’m talking to the BBC – )

Posted by Tim | Report as abusive

Social comments and analytics for this post…

This post was mentioned on Twitter by reutersgr8db8: Implications of recent climate science controversies…

Posted by uberVU – social comments | Report as abusive

climate change is just a new raft of tax pushed out by government and guess what?its dead in the water.Anyone can plainly see that we have fluctuations on all levels of physical geography and we have been getting warmer for 10,000 years.This panic in diff. directions is getting to be a joke and it will end with funding getting pulled.Too long we have had people in Universities all there working life doing absolutely nothing except looking proud and superior

Posted by thomas ormiston | Report as abusive

smell the cows ??

Posted by god | Report as abusive

RE: “Contrary to belief in some quarters, the leading models that forecast global climate temperature in decades ahead are reliable and this is strongly supported by satellite data.”

There are distinguished scientists who might very well take issue with that statement. For example consider the following remarks from one such group (reference below):

“The Earth’s climate system is highly nonlinear: inputs and outputs are not proportional, change is often episodic and abrupt, rather than slow and gradual, and multiple equilibria are the norm. While this is widely accepted, there is a relatively poor understanding of the different types of nonlinearities, how they manifest under various conditions, and whether they reflect a climate system driven by astronomical forcings, by internal feedbacks, or by a combination of both.”

Reference: Jose A. Rial and 10 other authors, 2004, Nonlinearities, Feedbacks and Critical Thresholds Within the Earth’s Climate System, Climatic Change, Vol. 65, pp. 11-38.

Posted by Steve Numero Uno | Report as abusive

If AGW isn’t true then this is good news, the tens of $TRILLIONS wouldn’t need to be spent to ‘de-carbonise’ the world, developing countries won’t be denied the cheap energy fossil-fuels brings allowing them to develop. We won’t have our quality of life massively curbed by an unelected UN-style global government. We won’t see businesses become uncompetitive as they struggle to pay carbon taxes and we can point the fingers at town planners who build on floodplains and blame the climate when homes flood. When it’s hot, wet, dry, windy we’ll accept that it’s just the weather and it happens from time to time just as we do when it snows. The huge sums of public money spent on inefficient wind farms and carbon offsetting schemes can be directed to something that works instead. The likes of Al Core & Dr Pachauri will have to go back to being politicians rather than make their $billions selling carbon offsetting/trading schemes to governments, the IPCC wouldn’t need to pretend there’s a consensus or base their assessments on the views of non-scientists or have the CRU cherry-pick data to ‘hide the decline’ or write climate models that fail to predict anything. We’d remember that for most of this planet’s history it has been completely free of ice and the fact that it currently has some that is melting isn’t anything new. We’d accept that the climate changes and we simply have to adapt as and when required.

No it would be good news indeed, so why are so many journalists, politicians and public figures so desperately keen to cling to the notion that we’re all going to die and accept all these warmist claims with blind faith rather then investigate them?

Posted by Matthew Stringer | Report as abusive

Mr Hunt seems totally out of step with both the science and public opinion. He obviously hasn’t seen Phil Jones’ recent interview with the BBC in which he admitted that there had been no global warming since 1985 – totally confounding alarmists climate models and rendering them useless. As Phil Jones agrees, the “Science is NOT settled” so the sooner Mr Hunt concentrates on the science and the evidence, and stops evangelising about “the gravest issue confronting humanity in the twenty first century”. the better This is science and not religion!

Posted by David Clive | Report as abusive

I believe in Santa as well.

Posted by Mr X | Report as abusive

What a conflict in data . The use of fear to draw attention to the problem. No quarantee that actions demanded will have any effect on the supposed problem. It is like the “sierra club” mentality has to be obeyed without reguard to the hardship it creates. We need to identify problems and take reasonable action to resolve them. The “cap and trade” crowd is nothing but a fast buck group that if left to their desires will cripple the economy, throw people out of work and make some rich people richer while the suppossed problem will never be solved. You can not solve a problem that does not exist!

Posted by Bob Gunn | Report as abusive

Plenty of hot air here about nothing – maybe you’re the cause of the claimed warming.

Soooo lets see if I’ve got this right, 10,000 years ago there was an ice age, and since then it got warmer and seems to be continuing. (And this has apparently happened before) Scary stuff! So we’ve also had some isolated stuff where it occasionally gets locally cold, snow, wet,… hang on, I’m seeing a weather pattern here.

And every time a report comes on somewhere in the world saying, “hottest year in 50 years”, or “coldest in however long”, has anyone thought to ask well why weren’t people running around saying the sky is falling 50 years ago when apparently it was hotter. The weather will continue to shift one way or the other like it or not. glaciers will continue to melt etc.

Posted by David Torp | Report as abusive