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What George Will should have written

Filed under: — gavin @ 28 February 2009

We’ve avoided piling on to the George Will kerfuffle, partly because this was not a new story for us (we’d commented on very similar distortions in previous columns in 2004 and 2007), but mostly because everyone else seems to be doing a great job in pointing out the problems in his recent columns.

We are actually quite gratified that a much wider group of people than normal have been involved in calling out this latest nonsense, taking the discussion well outside the sometimes-rarefied atmosphere of the scientific blogosphere (summary of links). Maybe RealClimate has succeeded in its original aim of increasing the wider awareness of the scientific context? However, like many, we are profoundly disappointed in the reaction of the Washington Post editors and George Will himself (though the ombudsman’s column today is a step in the right direction). It would have been pleasant to see an example of the conservative punditocracy actually learning something from the real world instead of resorting to ever-more unconvincing pseudo-legalistic justifications and attacks on the messenger to avoid taking their head out of the sand. Nonetheless, in a moment of naive optimism, we have allowed ourselves to indulge in a fantasy for how a more serious columnist might have dealt with the issue:
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It’s wrong to wish on space hardware

Filed under: — gavin @ 25 February 2009

A number of satellite related issues have come up this weekend: The NSIDC reminded us that satellite sensors are (like all kinds of data) not perfectly reliable and do not last forever. Two satellites collided by accident last week, littering the orbit with dangerous amounts of debris. In San Diego this weekend, I was fortunate enough to attend a meeting with some of the Apollo astronauts and some of the scientists involved in Cassini and the Mars Phoenix missions. And yesterday morning we heard that the Orbiting Carbon Observatory mission launch failed to insert the satellite into orbit, and it is presumably measuring carbon dioxide somewhere at the bottom of the Southern Ocean. Coincidentally, when it came up on the news, I was in a meeting with one of the scientists who had been working on setting up a climate model to assimilate the OCO data in order to pin down the carbon sinks.

All of these events have served to remind me at least, that although the space age is 50 years old, we are a long way from the point where we can take our ability to launch and control off-planet machines for granted. Getting into space was, and remains, a tremendous challenge. This makes the successes we’ve had all the more incredible, and a testament to the hard work the engineers and scientists do over many years before a launch to give the missions the best chance of success.
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Linking the climate-ecology attribution chain

Filed under: — group @ 19 February 2009

Guest commentary by Jim Bouldin, Department of Plant Sciences, UC Davis

Linking the regional climate-ecology attribution chain in the western United States

Many are obviously curious about whether certain current regional environmental changes are traceable to global climate change. There are a number of large-scale changes that clearly qualify—rapid warming of the arctic/sub-arctic regions for example, and earlier spring onset in the northern hemisphere and the associated phenological changes in plants and animals. But as one moves to smaller scales of space or time, global-to-local connections become more difficult to establish. This is due to the combined effect of the resolutions of climate models, the intrinsic variability of the system and the empirical climatic, environmental, or ecological data—the signal to noise ratio of possible causes and observed effects. Thus recent work by ecologists, climate scientists, and hydrologists in the western United States relating global climate change, regional climate change, and regional ecological change is of great significance. Together, their results show an increasing ability to link the chain at smaller and presumably more viscerally meaningful and politically tractable scales.
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Bushfires and extreme heat in south-east Australia

Filed under: — group @ 16 February 2009 - (Deutsch) (Español) (Italian)

Guest commentary by David Karoly, Professor of Meteorology at the University of Melbourne in Australia

On Saturday 7 February 2009, Australia experienced its worst natural disaster in more than 100 years, when catastrophic bushfires killed more than 200 people and destroyed more than 1800 homes in Victoria, Australia. These fires occurred on a day of unprecedented high temperatures in south-east Australia, part of a heat wave that started 10 days earlier, and a record dry spell.

This has been written from Melbourne, Australia, exactly one week after the fires, just enough time to pause and reflect on this tragedy and the extraordinary weather that led to it. First, I want to express my sincere sympathy to all who have lost family members or friends and all who have suffered through this disaster.

There has been very high global media coverage of this natural disaster and, of course, speculation on the possible role of climate change in these fires. So, did climate change cause these fires? The simple answer is “No!” Climate change did not start the fires. Unfortunately, it appears that one or more of the fires may have been lit by arsonists, others may have started by accident and some may have been started by fallen power lines, lightning or other natural causes.

Maybe there is a different way to phrase that question: In what way, if any, is climate change likely to have affected these bush fires?

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On replication

Filed under: — gavin @ 8 February 2009

This week has been dominated by questions of replication and of what standards are required to serve the interests of transparency and/or science (not necessarily the same thing). Possibly a recent example of replication would be helpful in showing up some of the real (as opposed to manufactured) issues that arise. The paper I’ll discuss is one of mine, but in keeping with our usual stricture against too much pro-domo writing, I won’t discuss the substance of the paper (though of course readers are welcome to read it themselves). Instead, I’ll focus on the two separate replication efforts I undertook in order to do the analysis. The paper in question is Schmidt (2009, IJoC), and it revisits two papers published in recent years purporting to show that economic activity is contaminating the surface temperature records – specifically de Laat and Maurellis (2006) and McKitrick and Michaels (2007).

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