Fraser Institute fires off a damp squib

One of the strangest sections of the Fraser Institute report is the one in which the authors attempt to throw dirt on the general concept of radiative forcing. Radiative forcing is nothing more than an application of the principle of conservation of energy, looking at the way a greenhouse gas alters the energy balance of a planet. The use of energy conservation arguments of this type has been standard practice in physics at least since the time of Fourier. We have heard certain vice presidents dismiss “Energy Conservation” as merely a matter of personal virtue, but we have never before heard people who purport to be scientists write off the whole utility of “Conservation of Energy.” From what is written in the Fraser report, it is not even clear that the authors understand the first thing about how radiative transfer calculations are done. They criticize the radiative forcing concept because it “fails to take into account the lifetime of greenhouse gases” — as if we really needed to know anything more about CO2 in this regard than that it stays around for centuries to millennia. They say that radiative forcing “is computed by assuming a linear relationship between certain climatic forcing agents and particular averages of temperature data.” Nonsense. It is computed using detailed calculations of absorption and emission of infrared radiation, based on laboratory measurements carried out with exquisite accuracy, and meticulously checked against real atmospheric observations.

Hockey-stick bashing and solar-explains-all advocacy are favorite activities of the denialist camp, so it is no surprise to see both themes amply represented in the Fraser Institute report. In neither case does the Fraser report break new ground in bad behavior. It’s just more of the same old same old. On climate of the past millennium, the Fraser report misrepresents the recent National Research Council report , which concluded quite the opposite of what the Fraser report claims it concluded: The National Research Council, like the official SPM, affirms that recent warming really does appear anomalous in light of the past millennium. The Fraser report obscures this point by cleansing the recent period of warming from their graphs. The discussion of solar variability consists of a lot of vague talk about unexplored possibilities, while skirting the basic problem with solar variability as an explanation of recent warming: There is no observed trend in solar activity of a type that could explain recent warming, and if the problem were an unobserved trend in solar ultraviolet, it would make the stratosphere (where UV is absorbed by ozone) trend warmer relative to a constant-solar baseline. In reality, the stratosphere is cooling strongly, and at about the rate the models predict.

The basic approach taken by the Fraser Institute Report is to fling a lot of mud at the models and hope that at least some of it sticks. Of course, if one looks at enough details one is bound to find some areas where there is a mismatch between models and reality. Modellers do this all the time, as a way of improving the representation of physical processes. However, to highlight a few shortcomings without asking what their implications might be for climate sensitivity, or whether the mismatch might be due to data problems rather than model problems (as in the case of tropical lapse rate), gives a distorted picture of the state of the art. An examination of the model shortcomings in the light of the vast range of important things they get right leaves the fundamental premise of the cause of warming unchallenged, and to see why, one needs to turn to a balanced assessment of the science such as represented in the full IPCC report.

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