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How not to attribute climate change

Filed under: — rasmus @ 10 October 2006

In an earlier post, we discussed a review article by Frohlich et al. on solar activity and its relationship with our climate. We thought that paper was quite sound. This September saw a new article in the Geophysical Research Letters with the title «Phenomenological solar signature in 400 years of reconstructed Northern Hemisphere temperature record» by Scafetta & West (henceforth referred to as SW). This article has now been cited by US Senator James Inhofe in a senate hearing that took place on 25 September 2006 . SW find that solar forcing accounts for ~50% of 20C warming, but this conclusion relies on some rather primitive correlations and is sensitive to assumptions (see recent post by Gavin on attribution). We said before that peer review is a necessary but not sufficient condition. So what wrong with it…?

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Con Allègre, ma non troppo

Filed under: — group @ 9 October 2006

Guest Commentary by Georg Hoffmann (LSCE)

Climate change denial is not necessarily a speciality of Washington DC think tanks – sometimes it can also be found in old Europe. Right now there is a little media storm passing by in France evoked by an article from Claude Allègre in L’Express. Who is Claude Allègre? He is one of the most decorated french geophysicists specializing in geochemistry and the use of paleomagnetism. Being a longtime friend of the former prime minister, Lionel Jospin, he even became Minister of Education and Research in the former Socialist government. He still plays an active role within the Socialist party and though he has never published anything directly related to anthropogenic climate change, one would assume that he has some understanding of the scientific matter. But this assumption would be wrong.

In the French weekly journal l’Express he exposed his “sceptical” views in an article entitled “The snows of Kilimanjaro”. In the short editorial, he somehow became lost when following Ernest Hemingway to East Africa. Allègre mentions two scientific examples to demonstrate that there is something fundamentally wrong in the IPCC statements on the reality of climate change. First, he commented on the disappearing glaciers of the Kilimanjaro, sometimes treated as the “Panda” of anthropogenic climate change. Citing a “Nature” study (which was in fact published in Science) by Pierre Sepulchre and colleagues from my laboratory, he claimed that this modelling study demonstrated that Kilimanjaro’s glaciers are controlled by tectonic activity. In fact, the article describes the impact of tectonics of the East African Highlands on Indian ocean moisture transport —- on a time scale of millions of years! This confuses glacier variability over the last ~100 years with rainfall trends extending back to the time of the early hominids (such as Lucy).

In fact, there are good reasons to believe that the situation on the Kilimanjaro is a bit more complicated than a simple “atmosphere gets warmer/ glaciers are melting” equation (for instance, see this previous post on tropical glacier retreat). Furthermore, the real link to climate change does not come from the retreat of one single tropical glacier, but from the fact that, to my knowledge, all studied tropical glaciers have retreated over the 20th century, and the retreat rates have generally increased in recent decades.

Allègre’s misunderstanding was immediately followed by another one. Citing a recent study on relatively stable Antarctic snowfall over the last 30 years (Monaghan et al, 2006, discussed here) , he highlighted what he thought was a clear contradiction to future climate simulations of global circulation models (melting of the Antarctic ice sheet). However, that’s not what they predict. All models predict a comparably stable Antarctic ice sheet for the 21th century in which comparably moderate temperature changes in Antarctica are compensated by slight increase in snowfall. The Monaghan et al study does not contradict these model scenarios.

The French climate research community was of course not very pleased about this short sequence of misrepresentations and personal attacks (“les Cassandres”) and corrected Allègre in an open letter published here on the website of the Institute Pierre Simon Laplace (which includes links to the ongoing back and forth, for those that speak French).

Curiously enough, twenty years ago Allègre wrote in “Clés pour la géologie”, (éd. Belin/France Culture):

“En brûlant des combustibles fossiles, l’homme a augmenté le taux de gaz carbonique dans l’atmosphère, ce qui fait, par exemple, que depuis un siècle la température moyenne du globe a augmenté d’un demi-degré.”

(Translation)
“By burning fossil fuels man enhanced the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which has raised the global mean temperature by half a degree in the last century”.

But at that time he used this argument against the anti-nuclear energy movement. It might be that there is simply a bit too much politics in Allègre’s life…

Attribution of 20th Century climate change to CO2

Filed under: — gavin @ 4 October 2006 - (Slovenčina)

The discussion of climate change in public (on blogs, in op-eds etc.) is often completely at odds to the discussion in the scientific community (in papers, at conferences, workshops etc.). In public discussions there is often an emphasis on seemingly simple questions (e.g. the percentage of the current greenhouse effect associated with water vapour) that, at first sight, appear to have profound importance to the question of human effects on climate change. In the scientific community however, discussions about these ‘simple’ questions are often not, and have subtleties that rarely get publicly addressed.

One such question is the percentage of 20th Century warming that can be attributed to CO2 increases. This appears straightforward, but it might be rather surprising to readers that this has neither an obvious definition, nor a precise answer. I will therefore try to explain why.

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Carl Wunsch, The Economist and the Gulf Stream

Filed under: — gavin @ 3 October 2006

Carl Wunsch usually has very interesting things to say about the climate system, and although his arguments don’t necessarily win everyone completely over, they often generate an improvement in the level of scientific discussion. In this week’s Economist, he has a letter printed concerning the mis-definition of the ‘Gulf Stream’ concept in the magazine’s climate change survey a couple of weeks ago. This is essentially a reprint of his letter to Nature that was published in 2004, which stated correctly that the Gulf Stream is basically a wind driven phenomenon and will not stop or reverse while the wind still blows and the Earth still turns. More »


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