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An Online University Course on the Science of Climate Science Denial

Filed under: — mike @ 22 April 2015

Guest post from John Cook, University of Queensland

For many years, RealClimate has been educating the public about climate science. The value of climate scientists patiently explaining the science and rebutting misinformation directly with the public cannot be overestimated. When I began investigating this issue, my initial searches led me here, which was invaluable in increasing my understanding of our climate and making sense of misinformation. RealClimate has inspired and empowered a host of climate communicators such as myself to step forward and help make climate science more accessible to the general public.

To further the work of educating the public, and empowering people to communicate the realities of climate change, the Skeptical Science team has collaborated with The University of Queensland to develop a MOOC, Making Sense of Climate Science Denial. MOOC stands for Massive (we’ve already had thousands of students sign up from over 130 countries) Open (available for free to everyone) Online (web-based, no software required) Course.

The course examines the science of climate science denial. Why do a small but vocal minority reject the scientific evidence for climate change? What techniques do they use to cast doubt on the science? And we examine the all-important question – based on scientific research, how should we respond to science denial?

Several strands of research in cognitive psychology, educational research and a branch of psychology called “inoculation theory” all point the way to neutralising the influence of science denial. The approach is two-fold: communicate the science but also explain how that science can be distorted.

So our course looks at the most common climate myths you’re likely to encounter online or in the media. We examine myths casting doubt on the reality of global warming. We explore the many human fingerprints on climate change. We look at the messages from past climate change and what climate models tell us about the future. And we look at how climate change is impacting every part of society and the environment. As we examine myths touching on all these parts of climate science, we shine the spotlight on the fallacies and techniques used to distort the science.


As well as our short video lectures debunking climate myths, we also interviewed many of the world’s leading scientists. I had the privilege to speak to Ben Santer, Katharine Hayhoe, Richard Alley, Phil Jones, Naomi Oreskes and let’s not forget my long, fascinating conversation with Michael Mann. I was also lucky enough to interview Sir David Attenborough at the Great Barrier Reef. We spoke to both climate scientists and social scientists who study the psychology of climate science denial. Some of the most powerful moments from those interviews came when the scientists described the attacks they’d personally experienced because of their climate research:

Our MOOC starts next Tuesday, April 28. It’s a free online course hosted by the not-for-profit edX (founded by Harvard University & MIT). It runs for 7 weeks, requiring 1 to 2 hours per week. You can enroll at

A Scientific Debate

Filed under: — mike @ 13 April 2015

Guest posting from Bill Ruddiman, University of Virginia

Recently I’ve read claims that some scientists are opposed to AGW but won’t speak out because they fear censure from a nearly monolithic community intent on imposing a mainstream view. Yet my last 10 years of personal experience refute this claim. This story began late in 2003 when I introduced a new idea (the ‘early anthropogenic hypothesis’) that went completely against a prevailing climatic paradigm of the time. I claimed that detectable human influences on Earth’s surface and its climate began thousands of years ago because of agriculture. Here I describe how this radically different idea was received by the mainstream scientific community.

Was my initial attempt to present this new idea suppressed? No. I submitted a paper to Climatic Change, then edited by Steve Schneider, a well-known climate scientist and AGW spokesman. From what I could tell, Steve was agnostic about my idea but published it because he found it an interesting challenge to the conventional wisdom. I also gave the Emiliani lecture at the 2003 December American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference to some 800 people. I feel certain that very few of those scientists came to my talk believing what my abstract claimed. They attended because they were interested in a really new idea from someone with a decent career reputation. The talk was covered by many prominent media sources, including the New York Times and The Economist. This experience told me that provocative new ideas draw interest because they are provocative and new, provided that they pass the key ‘sniff test’ by presenting evidence in support of their claims.

Did this radical new idea have difficulty receiving research funding? No. Proposals submitted to the highly competitive National Science Foundation (NSF) with John Kutzbach and Steve Vavrus have been fully funded since 2004 by 3-year grants. Even though the hypothesis of early anthropogenic effects on climate has been controversial (and still is for some), we crafted proposals that were carefully written, tightly reasoned, and focused on testing the new idea. As a result, we succeeded against negative funding odds of 4-1 or 5-1. One program manager told me he planned to put our grant on a short list of ‘transformational’ proposals/grants that NSF had requested. That didn’t mean he accepted our hypothesis. It meant that he felt that our hypothesis had the potential to transform that particular field of paleoclimatic research, if proven correct.

Were we able to get papers published? Yes. As any scientist will tell you, this process is rarely easy. Even reviewers who basically support what you have to say will rarely hand out ‘easy-pass’ reviews. They add their own perspective, and they often point out useful improvements. A few reviews of the 30-some papers we have published during the last 11 years have come back with extremely negative reviews, seemingly from scientists who seem deeply opposed to anything that even hints at large early anthropogenic effects. While these uber-critical reviews are discouraging, I have learned to put them aside for a few days, give my spirits time to rebound, and then address the criticisms that are fair (that is, evidence-based), explain to the journal editor why other criticisms are unfair, and submit a revised (and inevitably improved) paper. Eventually, our views have always gotten published, although sometimes only after considerable effort.

The decade-long argument over large early anthropogenic effects continues, although recent syntheses of archeological and paleoecological data have been increasingly supportive. In any case, I continue to trust the scientific process to sort this debate out. I suggest that my experience is a good index of the way the system actually operates when new and controversial ideas emerge. I see no evidence that the system is muffling good new ideas.

Climate Oscillations and the Global Warming Faux Pause

Filed under: — mike @ 26 February 2015

No, climate change is not experiencing a hiatus. No, there is not currently a “pause” in global warming.

Despite widespread such claims in contrarian circles, human-caused warming of the globe proceeds unabated. Indeed, the most recent year (2014) was likely the warmest year on record.

It is true that Earth’s surface warmed a bit less than models predicted it to over the past decade-and-a-half or so. This doesn’t mean that the models are flawed. Instead, it points to a discrepancy that likely arose from a combination of three main factors (see the discussion my piece last year in Scientific American). These factors include the likely underestimation of the actual warming that has occurred, due to gaps in the observational data. Secondly, scientists have failed to include in model simulations some natural factors (low-level but persistent volcanic eruptions and a small dip in solar output) that had a slight cooling influence on Earth’s climate. Finally, there is the possibility that internal, natural oscillations in temperature may have masked some surface warming in recent decades, much as an outbreak of Arctic air can mask the seasonal warming of spring during a late season cold snap. One could call it a global warming “speed bump”. In fact, I have.

Some have argued that these oscillations contributed substantially to the warming of the globe in recent decades. In an article my colleagues Byron Steinman, Sonya Miller and I have in the latest issue of Science magazine, we show that internal climate variability instead partially offset global warming.

We focused on the Northern Hemisphere and the role played by two climate oscillations known as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation or “AMO” (a term I coined back in 2000, as recounted in my book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars) and the so-called Pacific Decadal Oscillation or “PDO” (we a use a slightly different term–Pacific Multidecadal Oscillation or “PMO” to refer to the longer-term features of this apparent oscillation). The oscillation in Northern Hemisphere average temperatures (which we term the Northern Hemisphere Multidecadal Oscillation or “NMO”) is found to result from a combination of the AMO and PMO.

In numerous previous studies, these oscillations have been linked to everything from global warming, to drought in the Sahel region of Africa, to increased Atlantic hurricane activity. In our article, we show that the methods used in most if not all of these previous studies have been flawed. They fail to give the correct answer when applied to a situation (a climate model simulation) where the true answer is known.

We propose and test an alternative method for identifying these oscillations, which makes use of the climate simulations used in the most recent IPCC report (the so-called “CMIP5” simulations). These simulations are used to estimate the component of temperature changes due to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations and other human impacts plus the effects of volcanic eruptions and observed changes in solar output. When all those influences are removed, the only thing remaining should be internal oscillations. We show that our method gives the correct answer when tested with climate model simulations.

Estimated history of the “AMO” (blue), the “PMO (green) and the “NMO” (black). Uncertainties are indicated by shading. Note how the AMO (blue) has reached a shallow peak recently, while the PMO is plummeting quite dramatically. The latter accounts for the precipitous recent drop in the NMO.

Applying our method to the actual climate observations (see figure above) we find that the NMO is currently trending downward. In other words, the internal oscillatory component is currently offsetting some of the Northern Hemisphere warming that we would otherwise be experiencing. This finding expands upon our previous work coming to a similar conclusion, but in the current study we better pinpoint the source of the downturn. The much-vaunted AMO appears to have made relatively little contribution to large-scale temperature changes over the past couple decades. Its amplitude has been small, and it is currently relatively flat, approaching the crest of a very shallow upward peak. That contrasts with the PMO, which is trending sharply downward. It is that decline in the PMO (which is tied to the predominance of cold La Niña-like conditions in the tropical Pacific over the past decade) that appears responsible for the declining NMO, i.e. the slowdown in warming or “faux pause” as some have termed it.

Our conclusion that natural cooling in the Pacific is a principal contributor to the recent slowdown in large-scale warming is consistent with some other recent studies, including a study I commented on previously showing that stronger-than-normal winds in the tropical Pacific during the past decade have lead to increased upwelling of cold deep water in the eastern equatorial Pacific. Other work by Kevin Trenberth and John Fasullo of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) shows that the there has been increased sub-surface heat burial in the Pacific ocean over this time frame, while yet another study by James Risbey and colleagues demonstrates that model simulations that most closely follow the observed sequence of El Niño and La Niña events over the past decade tend to reproduce the warming slowdown.

It is possible that the downturn in the PMO itself reflects a “dynamical response” of the climate to global warming. Indeed, I have suggested this possibility before. But the state-of-the-art climate model simulations analyzed in our current study suggest that this phenomenon is a manifestation of purely random, internal oscillations in the climate system.

This finding has potential ramifications for the climate changes we will see in the decades ahead. As we note in the last line of our article,

Given the pattern of past historical variation, this trend will likely reverse with internal variability, instead adding to anthropogenic warming in the coming decades.

That is perhaps the most worrying implication of our study, for it implies that the “false pause” may simply have been a cause for false complacency, when it comes to averting dangerous climate change.

El Niño or Bust

Filed under: — mike @ 8 May 2014

Guest commentary from Michelle L’Heureux, NOAA Climate Prediction Center

Much media attention has been directed at the possibility of an El Niño brewing this year. Many outlets have drawn comparison with the 1997-98 super El Niño. So, what are the odds that El Niño will occur? And if it does, how strong will it be?

To track El Niño, meteorologists at the NOAA/NWS Climate Prediction Center (CPC) release weekly and monthly updates on the status of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). The International Research Institute (IRI) for Climate and Society partner with us on the monthly ENSO release and are also collaborators on a brand new “ENSO blog” which is part of (co-sponsored by the NOAA Climate Programs Office).

Blogging ENSO is a first for operational ENSO forecasters, and we hope that it gives us another way to both inform and interact with our users on ENSO predictions and impacts. In addition, we will collaborate with other scientists to profile interesting ENSO research and delve into the societal dimensions of ENSO.

As far back as November 2013, the CPC and the IRI have predicted an elevated chance of El Niño (relative to historical chance or climatology) based on a combination of model predictions and general trends over the tropical Pacific Ocean. Once the chance of El Niño reached 50% in March 2014, an El Niño Watch was issued to alert the public that conditions are more favorable for the development of El Niño.
Current forecasts for the Nino-3.4 SST index (as of 5 May 2014) from the NCEP Climate Forecast System version 2 model.
Current forecasts for the Nino-3.4 SST index (as of 5 May 2014) from the NCEP Climate Forecast System version 2 model

More recently, on May 8th, the CPC/IRI ENSO team increased the chance that El Niño will develop, with a peak probability of ~80% during the late fall/early winter of this year. El Nino onset is currently favored sometime in the early summer (May-June-July). At this point, the team remains non-committal on the possible strength of El Niño preferring to watch the system for at least another month or more before trying to infer the intensity. But, could we get a super strong event? The range of possibilities implied by some models allude to such an outcome, but at this point the uncertainty is just too high. While subsurface heat content levels are well above average (March was the highest for that month since 1979 and April was the second highest), ENSO prediction relies on many other variables and factors. We also remain in the spring prediction barrier, which is a more uncertain time to be making ENSO predictions.

Could El Niño predictions fizzle? Yes, there is roughly a 2 in 10 chance at this point that this could happen. It happened in 2012 when an El Nino Watch was issued, chances became as high as 75% and El Niño never formed. Such is the nature of seasonal climate forecasting when there is enough forecast uncertainty that “busts” can and do occur. In fact, more strictly, if the forecast probabilities are “reliable,” an event with an 80% chance of occurring should only occur 80% of the time over a long historical record. Therefore, 20% of the time the event must NOT occur (click here for a description of verification techniques).

While folks might prefer total certainty in our forecasts, we live in an uncertain world. El Niño is most likely to occur this year, so please stay attentive to the various updates linked above and please visit our brand new ENSO blog.

If You See Something, Say Something

Filed under: — mike @ 17 January 2014

Gavin provided a thoughtful commentary about the role of scientists as advocates in his RealClimate piece a few weeks ago.

I have weighed in with my own views on the matter in my op-ed today in this Sunday’s New York Times. And, as with Gavin, my own views have been greatly influenced and shaped by our sadly departed friend and colleague, Stephen Schneider. Those who were familiar with Steve will recognize his spirit and legacy in my commentary. A few excerpts are provided below:

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