Berkeley earthquake called off

Anybody expecting earthshaking news from Berkeley, now that the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature group being led by Richard Muller has released its results, had to be content with a barely perceptible quiver. As far as the basic science goes, the results could not have been less surprising if the press release had said “Man Finds Sun Rises At Dawn.” This must have been something of a disappointment for anyone hoping for something else.

For those not familiar with it, the purpose of Berkeley Earth was to create a new, independent compilation and assessment of global land surface temperature trends using new statistical methods and a wider range of source data. Expectations that the work would put teeth in accusations against CRU and GISTEMP led to a lot of early press, and an invitation to Muller to testify before Congress. However, the big news this week (e.g. this article by the BBC’s Richard Black) is that there is no discernible difference between the new results and those of CRU.

Muller says that “the biggest surprise was that the new results agreed so closely with the warming values published previously by other teams in the US and the UK.” We find this very statement surprising. As we showed two years ago, any of various simple statistical analyses of the freely available data at the time showed that it was very very unlikely that the results would change.

The basic fact of warming is supported by a huge array of complementary data (ocean warming, ice melting, phenology etc). And shouldn’t it have helped reduce the element of surprise that a National Academy of Sciences study already concluded that the warming seen in the surface station record was “undoubtedly real,” that Menne et al showed that highly touted station siting issues did not in fact compromise the record, that the satellite record agrees with the surface record in every important respect (see Fig. 7 here), and that numerous independent studies (many of them by amateurs) also confirmed the warming trend?

If the Berkeley results are newsworthy, it is only because Muller had been perceived as an outsider (driven in part by trash-talking about other scientists), and has taken money from the infamous Koch brothers. People acting against expectation (“Man bites dog”) is always better news than the converse, something that Muller’s PR effort has exploited to the max. It does take some integrity to admit getting the same answer as those they had criticized, despite their preconceptions and the preconceptions of their funders. And we are pleased to see Muller’s statement that “This confirms that these studies were done carefully and that potential biases identified by climate change sceptics did not seriously affect their conclusions.” It’s far from the overdue apology that Phil Jones (of CRU) deserves from his critics, but it’s a start.

But Muller’s framing of the Berkeley results is still odd. His statement, that had they found no warming trend, this would have “ruled out anthropogenic global warming”, while true in a technical sense, would not have implied that we should not worry about human drivers of climate change. And it would not have overturned over a century of firmly established radiative-transfer and thermodynamics. Nor would it have overturned the basic chemistry which led Bolin and Eriksson (reprinted here) to predict in 1959 that fossil fuel burning would cause a significant increase in CO2 — long before the results of Keeling’s famous Mauna Loa observations were in. As a physicist, Muller knows that the reason for concern about increasing CO2 comes from the basic physics and chemistry, which was elucidated long before the warming trend was actually observable.

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