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A new survey of scientists

Filed under: — gavin @ 29 September 2008 - (Deutsch)

Dennis Bray and Hans von Storch have been making surveys of climate scientists for a number of years with the reasonable aim of seeing what the community thinks (about IPCC, climate change, attribution etc). They have unfortunately not always been as successful as one might like – problems have ranged from deciding who is qualified to respond; questions that were not specific enough or that could be interpreted in very different ways; to losing control of who answered the questionnaire (one time the password and website were broadcast on a mailing list of climate ‘sceptics’). These problems have meant that the results were less useful than they could have been and in fact have occasionally been used to spread disinformation. How these surveys are used obviously plays into how willing scientists are to participate, since if your answers are misinterpreted once, you will be less keen next time. Others have attempted similar surveys, with similar problems.

As people should know, designing truly objective surveys is very tricky. However, if you are after a specific response, it’s easy to craft questions that will favour your initial bias. We discussed an egregious example of that from Steven Milloy a while ago. A bigger problem is not overt bias, but more subtle kinds – such as assuming that respondents have exactly the same background as the questioners and know exactly what you are talking about, or simply using questions that don’t actually tell you want you really want to know. There are guides available to help in crafting such surveys which outline many of the inadvertent pitfalls.

Well, Bray and von Storch have sent out a new survey.

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The mpg confusion

Filed under: — gavin @ 23 September 2008 - (Español) (Français)

What reduces emissions more?
A. Someone swapping their old SUV (which gets 12 miles per gallon) for a hybrid version (18 mpg) or
B. someone upgrading their 25 mpg compact to a new 46 mpg Prius?
(ignore for a minute manufacturing issues or driving habits and assume the miles driven are the same).

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On straw men and Greenland: Tad Pfeffer Responds

Filed under: — eric @ 18 September 2008

In a recent post about sea level rise, we highlighted a paper by the University of Colorado’s Tad Pfeffer and others in which they show that one can rule out more than 2 meters of sea level rise in the next century. While we liked the paper very much, we also complained that Pfeffer and colleagues had created a bit of a straw man, by implying that it had been seriously proposed that Greenland’s near term contribution to sea level rise could be much larger than that. In fact (we said), none of us in the climate science community ever took such ideas seriously, even if the popular press thought we did. Tad responds by pointing out that in fact there is published work attributing considerable likelihood to such extreme scenarios, and that there are numerous studies that at the very least strong imply it. He also reminded me that their paper actually rules out a contribution of more than about 50 cm from Greenland, significantly below some other recent published estimates. That makes their work even more important, since there are several publications that definitely consider upwards of one meter (from Greenland alone) by 2100 to be plausible. Pfeffer et al. conclude that that is simply not the case (at least in their informed view). Still, we remind readers that our chief complaint was that Pfeffer et al.’s work was taken by many in the media as a downward revision to sea level rise estimates, whereas in fact most informed estimates had put an upper limit well below that. See our earlier post on the IPCC Sea Level numbers.

In any case. Pfeffer et al’.s response to our post follows below. Fair enough.

A response to RealClimate’s post on our paper about sea level rise

W.T. Pfeffer, J.T. Harper, and S. O’Neel
15 September 2008

We have read with interest – and, we admit, surprise – the RealClimate post concerning our 5 September publication in Science entitled “Kinematic Constraints on 21st Century Sea Level Rise.” The source of our surprise, however, is probably not what the RealClimate authors imagine – we had fully expected a vigorous defense of very high rates of sea level rise (greater than 2 m/century), but not a denial that such rates had ever been hypothesized.

We do not state anywhere in our paper that 2m or more of SLR by 2100 has been published as a peer reviewed and “informed estimate”. We do state that this has been ‘inferred’ and ‘argued’ as a “viable 21st century scenario”. We believe there is value in constraining the upper limits to the role of ice dynamics in future SLR. And, from what we know about historical rates of SLR in conjunction with what ‘we know we don’t know’ about ice dynamics, we believe it is reasonable to ponder very high rates of SLR in the next century. However, we also believe that it is problematic to project such a ‘hypothesis’ as a supported theory without proper testing by the scientific method. The question raised by RC is whether or not this hypothesis has circulated within the scientific community.

In his 2007 paper (Environ. Res. Lett. 2(2007)) Hansen proposes a rate of sea level rise of “5 m this century.” This is hypothetical, but he is confident that it is a “far better estimate than a linear response”. This is accompanied by his statement that he finds it “almost inconceivable that BAU climate change would not yield a sea level change of the order of meters on the century timescale.” The provisional nature of his discussion is irrelevant; it is an explicit statement that 5 m of sea level rise in this century is a possibility he regards as viable, published in the scientific literature by the person who is arguably (and deservedly) the most visible and authoritative climate scientist in the world. No reader of this paper would assume that Hansen didn’t actually mean what he said. Hansen reinforced this idea in other publications and statements, including in his briefing to Congress on 23 June 2008 (“sea level rise of at least two meters is likely this century”). Our analysis specifically tested the likelihood of next-century sea level rise of more than 2 m, and Hansen explicitly hypothesized 5 m of sea level rise in this century.

Hansen has gone on record with specific numbers, but other published studies including the 2006 Overpeck and Otto-Bliesner Science papers left the upper limit open ended, and certainly implied it could be quite high. The fact that this idea was present in the scientific community was confirmed for us by 8 scientific presentations we gave on this topic in the past year (5 in the US, including the Fall 2007 AGU and 3 in Europe). At none of those talks did anyone in the audience question what high forecasts we were referring to. The comments we got back on our work were overwhelmingly positive, and were along the lines that what we had presented was a good next step – both to move past the IPCC’s low sea level forecasts, and as a response to the persistent hypotheses of very high rates of sea level rise that were circulating. Criticisms, where they were voiced, were largely that we were underestimating the power of dynamics and that rates of sea level rise well in excess of 2 m/century might occur in spite of our conclusions.

We agree that the media coverage of our paper (as well as others before it) has undesirable side effects. Wherever we had the opportunity we pressed media writers not to use terms like “exaggerated” or “high sea level forecasts debunked,” and we have consistently stressed that our results indicate a very significant sea level rise and are no justification for any kind of complacency. We have stressed that even our low end scenario of 0.8 m of SLR would have tremendous consequences. However, we stand by our statements that sea level rise at rates of substantially more than 2 m this century were in fact put forward as a likely possibility.

Earlier this summer Andy Revkin published a piece in the New York Times about what he has termed the “Whiplash Effect”: confusion created in the public mind by media coverage of rapidly evolving scientific ideas. There has certainly been some whiplash in this case. However it is others who cracked the whip. We have simply refused to let go of the other end.

Simple Question, Simple Answer… Not

Filed under: — group @ 8 September 2008 - (Français) (Japanese) (Finnish) (Czech)

Guest commentary by Spencer R. Weart, American Institute of Physics

I often get emails from scientifically trained people who are looking for a straightforward calculation of the global warming that greenhouse gas emissions will bring. What are the physics equations and data on gases that predict just how far the temperature will rise? A natural question, when public expositions of the greenhouse effect usually present it as a matter of elementary physics. These people, typically senior engineers, get suspicious when experts seem to evade their question. Some try to work out the answer themselves (Lord Monckton for example) and complain that the experts dismiss their beautiful logic.

The engineers’ demand that the case for dangerous global warming be proved with a page or so of equations does sound reasonable, and it has a long history. The history reveals how the nature of the climate system inevitably betrays a lover of simple answers.

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How much will sea level rise?

Filed under: — group @ 4 September 2008 - (Español) (Italian)

… is the question people have been putting a lot of thought into since the IPCC AR4 report came out. We analysed what was in the report quite carefully at the time and pointed out that the allowance for dynamic ice sheet processes was very uncertain, and actually precluded setting a upper limit on what might be expected. The numbers that appeared in some headlines (up to 59 cm by 2100) did not take that uncertainty into account.

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Progress in reconstructing climate in recent millennia

Filed under: — gavin @ 3 September 2008 - (Español)

What makes science different from politics?

That’s not the start of a joke, but it is a good jumping off point for a discussion of the latest publication on paleo-reconstructions of the last couple of millennia. As has been relatively widely reported, Mike Mann and colleagues (including Ray Bradley and Malcolm Hughes) have a new paper out in PNAS with an update of their previous work. And this is where the question posed above comes in: the difference is that with time scientists can actually make progress on problems, they don’t just get stuck in an endless back and forth of the same talking points.

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