IPCC attribution statements redux: A response to Judith Curry

I have written a number of times about the procedure used to attribute recent climate change (here in 2010, in 2012 (about the AR4 statement), and again in 2013 after AR5 was released). For people who want a summary of what the attribution problem is, how we think about the human contributions and why the IPCC reaches the conclusions it does, read those posts instead of this one.

The bottom line is that multiple studies indicate with very strong confidence that human activity is the dominant component in the warming of the last 50 to 60 years, and that our best estimates are that pretty much all of the rise is anthropogenic.

The probability density function for the fraction of warming attributable to human activity (derived from Fig. 10.5 in IPCC AR5). The bulk of the probability is far to the right of the “50%” line, and the peak is around 110%.

If you are still here, I should be clear that this post is focused on a specific claim Judith Curry has recently blogged about supporting a “50-50” attribution (i.e. that trends since the middle of the 20th Century are 50% human-caused, and 50% natural, a position that would center her pdf at 0.5 in the figure above). She also commented about her puzzlement about why other scientists don’t agree with her. Reading over her arguments in detail, I find very little to recommend them, and perhaps the reasoning for this will be interesting for readers. So, here follows a line-by-line commentary on her recent post. Please excuse the length.

Starting from the top… (note, quotes from Judith Curry’s blog are blockquoted).

Pick one:

a) Warming since 1950 is predominantly (more than 50%) caused by humans.

b) Warming since 1950 is predominantly caused by natural processes.

When faced with a choice between a) and b), I respond: ‘I can’t choose, since i think the most likely split between natural and anthropogenic causes to recent global warming is about 50-50′. Gavin thinks I’m ‘making things up’, so I promised yet another post on this topic.

This is not a good start. The statements that ended up in the IPCC SPMs are descriptions of what was found in the main chapters and in the papers they were assessing, not questions that were independently thought about and then answered. Thus while this dichotomy might represent Judith’s problem right now, it has nothing to do with what IPCC concluded. In addition, in framing this as a binary choice, it gives implicit (but invalid) support to the idea that each choice is equally likely. That this is invalid reasoning should be obvious by simply replacing 50% with any other value and noting that the half/half argument could be made independent of any data.

For background and context, see my previous 4 part series Overconfidence in the IPCC’s detection and attribution.


The IPCC’s AR5 attribution statement:

It is extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together. The best estimate of the human induced contribution to warming is similar to the observed warming over this period.

I’ve remarked on the ‘most’ (previous incarnation of ‘more than half’, equivalent in meaning) in my Uncertainty Monster paper:

Further, the attribution statement itself is at best imprecise and at worst ambiguous: what does “most” mean – 51% or 99%?

Whether it is 51% or 99% would seem to make a rather big difference regarding the policy response. It’s time for climate scientists to refine this range.

I am arguing here that the ‘choice’ regarding attribution shouldn’t be binary, and there should not be a break at 50%; rather we should consider the following terciles for the net anthropogenic contribution to warming since 1950:

  • >66%
  • 33-66%
  • <33%

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