A Fourth Thing Elizabeth Kolbert Didn’t Know

Elizabeth Kolbert, the New Yorker staff writer, did not know that Phil Jones, a climate-change scientist, manuevered to keep hidden information that disagreed with his conclusions. Here is what one of the damning emails gathered from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit said:

From Phil Jones [head of the Climate Research Unit]. To: Michael Mann. Date: May 29, 2008
“Can you delete any emails you may have had with Keith re AR4? Keith will do likewise.”

To keep them from being exposed via a Freedom of Information law. Robin Hanson and Tyler Cowen think this is no big deal. I disagree. Yes, I said before this happened that the consensus was likely to appear stronger than it is and that bloggers were a powerful force toward truth — both of which this episode merely supports rather than reveals. And, yeah, it’s just email; the really damning info is the tree-ring data reanalyzed by Stephen McIntyre.

The reason I think this is important is two-fold. First, this is not a smoking gun. Global warming does not equal the honesty of Phil Jones. But it is a powerful piece of evidence that climate skeptics can use to convince anyone that the consensus isn’t as consensus-y as it appears. Second, it exposes what Kevin Trenberth (a proponent of man-made global warming) really thinks. This is something that few knew until now. Here is what he really thinks:

The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t. The CERES data published in the August BAMS 09 supplement on 2008 shows there should be even more warming: but the data are surely wrong. Our observing system is inadequate.

The data are surely wrong. Trenberth, being human, is going to put the best possible spin on things, the spin most consistent with what he has said many times . . . and this is what he comes up with. Support for the idea of global warming is entirely based on climate models. No one has created a mini-Earth and done experiments. If the data and models don’t agree, there is no reason to believe the models. And if you don’t believe the models you have no reason to believe in global warming. Is Trenberth an ignoramus whose honest assessment of the situation (the models and the data profoundly disagree) should be ignored? Of course not. He doesn’t draw the obvious conclusion (the models are wrong) but nothing prevents the rest of us from doing so.

Just to be clear: I completely agree with Robin’s larger point that this sort of thing supports prediction markets. And I think reduced reliance on fossil fuel would be a very good thing.

Three Things Elizabeth Kolbert Doesn’t Know.

10 Replies to “A Fourth Thing Elizabeth Kolbert Didn’t Know”

  1. You are absolutely right – Elizabeth Kolbert did not know that Phil Jones displayed a bias that is at variance with the ideal of open investigation and pursuit of truth. But that research is only one of many threads that support the idea of anthropogenic global warming. Are you suggesting that all scientists behaved that way? What about the mass of research not conducted at that small center in the UK?

  2. Jonathan, Phil Jones gets around. He knows about lots of data, not just his own. Based on everything he knows, the climate models and the data do not agree. The disagreement is so great that “the data must be wrong”. The idea of global warming — the prediction that the earth will be a lot warmer in the near future — is entirely based on climate models. There is nothing else. No one has done experiments with other Earths. There is no animal model. Given a profound disagreement between those models and the data, any sensible person would believe the models are wrong. We don’t know how much wrong, or why, we just know they are wrong. Support for the prediction of global warming completely collapses.

    That was my second point — until now, few people (certainly including Kolbert) knew what Jones really thought. In all accounts of this I have read, the writer has focused on the misconduct (hiding data that disagrees). Just as Tyler and Robin said, this is no surprise. But neither Tyler nor Robin nor me nor almost anyone else knew that Phil Jones believes the data and the climate models profoundly disagree. Of course the commentators enjoy finger-wagging and saying how awful someone or some group of people is. They are overlooking what really matters here.

    [I have revised the post to put more stress on the second point about what Phil Jones really thinks.]

  3. >> “No one has done experiments with other Earths.”

    Hmm … a bit tautological there, as there is only one Earth. But the early work on the macro-modeling of planetary temperatures was done by Lovelock, et al, and that did use information from other planets. Lovelock’s work with NASA was to determine if there was life on other planets based on their atmospheres.

    Today’s models are complex (and do not include all factors) – and there is uncertainty as to the rate of change. But it was long ago that relatively simple models were created to determine planetary temperature equilibrium based on the solar income, planet size, and composition of the atmosphere. We do know that certain gases will increase the retention of heat – these gasses are transparent to visible light, but reflect some of the wavelengths that are re-radiated. And we know that a huge amount of carbon that was sequestered over millions of years has been released in the past century …

  4. I have dipped a toe into the flood of challenges and explanations at realclimate.org. They explain Phil Jones’ comment as referring to a narrow technical issue. CERES is the Clouds and the Earth Radiant Energy System satellite experiment. They are trying to accurately measure the energy radiated and absorbed by the earth, at the boundary of the upper atmosphere. Apparently it is not going too well, and that is what Jones is supposedly complaining about. He wants us to be at a point where our satellite observations are sufficiently complete and accurate that the amount of energy we see entering and leaving the earth matches up with temperature changes. He finds it a travesty that his scientific goals are not being met. The satellite measurements are wrong, they would seemingly indicate a temperature rise in the past few years but that is not happening. This is the data that must be wrong.

    He is not referring to the general program of climate modeling, or suggesting that the recent lack of global warming somehow invalidates the broad conclusions and predictions of climate models. He is not discussing that issue at all. His comments are specific to one satellite experiment, and relate to common problems in cutting edge science, of data accuracy. At least this is what the realclimate folks claim.

  5. Are you sure that’s a Phil Jones quote? Other places have it attributed to Kevin Trenberth.

    And reading that paragraph doesn’t tell me what he thinks – it needs a translation so that I can understand it. Your view, Seth, is that he’s talking about Global Warming and the data and models that are the basis for our predictions of long-term temperature trends. Gavin Schmidt says that “Trenberth is talking about our inability to be able to measure the net radiation balance at the top of the atmosphere to the requisite precision to be able to say on short time scales what the energy budget is doing. The observations are inadequate for that.” He also provides a link (pdf) to a recent paper by Trenberth that seems to express that same view (in milder terms).

    There have been several other examples like this in the reactions to the emails, which raise serious doubts about the practice of reading snippets of scientists’ emails and assuming that your interpretation of what they’re talking about is correct.

  6. Hal, thanks for the insightful comments. Seth, love your blog, but you are sometimes quick to jump to conclusions when there are things you don’t know – for instance, that data in these types of experiments is often wrong due to measurement error arising from a variety of causes, such as faulty instrumentation.

  7. Thanks for the correction, Vince. You’re right, it’s Trenberth, not Jones. Hal, thanks for the further details. People rarely use the word “travesty” to describe minor stuff. It isn’t a travesty that I got the wrong change when I went shopping. It’s a travesty when something important goes wrong (e.g., “travesty of justice”). Of course the people at realclimate.org would love to minimize the meaning of this and say that Trenberth is just really excitable and that the data disagree with prediction because they are “inadequate” — whatever that means. But you are right that further information might change what I make of this.
    If the scientists at realclimate.org would like me to believe that the climate models they rely on so heavily are very plausible, there’s an easy way to do it: just show me cases where their predictions have been tested. This is a case where the models failed to predict correctly. Fine. Show me all the cases where the models have been tested and I will give less weight to this case.

  8. Why should it support prediction markets?
    If whether we had a consensus on global warming would be decided by prediction markets, it would be easy target for lobbying money.
    It’s easy to corrupt a prediction market.
    Let’s say the oil industry puts down 5 million in the prediction market and internally bills it as marketing expense.

    Having money invested in the prediction market has to have a higher return than putting the money into other investments for investors who are looking to make money.
    If we talk about predictions for global warming there should probably a time window of 10 years or more between the making of the prediction and the payout of the money.
    Therefore there no reason to assume that investors will bet enough money to outway any influence of lobbying money.
    Than there the question about how much money the oil lobby has to pay per point of consensus.

    To reach a 20/80 split the oil lobby would only have to put up a fifth of the money that the people who believe in global warming put up.
    The industry has lobbying budgets that are big enough to remove consensus from any prediction bet.

    Again the “the data is wrong” statement is something that I brought up before in the comments of this blog. In areas where you need a complex procedure to measure your results some of your data is nearly always wrong.
    Hal describes above a perfectly reasonable explanation of why the CERES data might be wrong.
    Just because the CERES data doesn’t match the models doesn’t mean that there aren’t other datasets that match the models.

  9. Seth, are you saying that Trenberth’s email and his article which I linked (“An imperative for climate change planning: tracking Earth’s global energy”) are not talking about the same thing? There are plenty of reasons to think that they are, including the fact that his email cites that article (have you seen the full email?). Why think that the email represents his true, secret view and that everything else is just for show? It sure looks like the email is a talking about what he said in the paper. If you can’t tell what he means in the email (e.g. “Our observing system is inadequate”), take a look at the paper – the introduction gives a sketch of what an “adequate system” would allow us to track.

    It also turns out that the one email was part of a string of emails and replies, as you can see here. Someone disagrees with his “travesty” sentence, and Trenberth responds “How come you do not agree with a statement that says we are no where close to knowing where energy is going or whether clouds are changing to make the planet brighter. We are not close to balancing the energy budget. …” Then someone else notes that our observations are within the range of what could be expected based on natural variability, and Trenberth replies “Saying it is natural variability is not an explanation. What are the physical processes? Where did the heat go?” and then continues in a way that sounds a lot like the introduction to his paper. It reads like scientists arguing over their research, not like they’re sharing secrets.

  10. Vince, you have a good point. Trenberth’s view isn’t as hidden as I thought. And the model under discussion isn’t exactly about climate prediction. But I still think there is a problem. To quote from Trenberth’s paper: “An assessment is given of our ability to track changes in reservoirs and flows of energy within the climate system. Arguments are given that developing the ability to do this is important.” That equals “the lack of agreement between model and data is a travesty”? I disagree.

    Vince, do you disagree with my big point? That Kolbert was fed a false sense of security? If not, where in her climate-change book does she point out that Jones was fond of suppressing dissent? Nowhere. Did she hide this unpleasant tendency? Or did Jones? My guess is Jones hid it. I keep thinking there was something important she didn’t know.

    My big question remains: why should I believe climate models? I would love to read something that compares their predictions (not their fits) to what actually happened. In psychology, modelers have failed to grasp this point — the need to test their models by predictions, not fits — for more than 50 years.

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