Peter Cochrane's Blog: Climate change more about belief than science

I only hope we haven't done too much damage to real efforts to save the planet

Compiled on VS011 flying London to Boston and dispatched to via free wi-fi at my hotel later the same day.

Over the past decade I have watched 'global warming' mutate into a belief system bigger than Christianity and Islam combined. Considered debate appears to have stopped a long time ago and only dogma and belief seem to remain.

In my view the basis of science and the scientific principle have been progressively bastardised by the need of a community to continually reinforce their belief and collective findings.

A founding principle of science is intense scepticism, especially when it comes to our own work and ideas. Science is based on the formulation of a hypothesis, the testing of that hypothesis, and progressive regressions and refinements until our models accurately mirror practical observations.

And of course our observational capacity and fidelity is not static and has generally improved with our technological development, which often leads to an even more accurate understanding.

Most importantly, the process does not stop with any individual or group. We have to publish so that others can subsume our ideas and results, and test and challenge at every level. If, and only if, multiple teams and/or individuals are able to repeat our results and observations, might we conclude we are probably on the right track.

And should someone, or some team, independently come to the same conclusion via a different method or route, then the veracity of our work looks even more certain. Jumping to conclusions or going it alone does not constitute good science.

The biggest danger in the scientific process is that we find results that support our hypothesis by virtue of our unconscious bias and selection. Should we stray from the established rigour, then we stand to fool ourselves and create false trails that detract from, and not contribute to, overall understanding and progress.

So my complaint of the climatologists modelling of the planet rests at several levels.

  1. Their models appear to be partial, incomplete if you will, and do not accurately reflect the actual planet-wide system. This is not good news given that weather and sea systems are not only non-linear, they are chaotic too. Any minor omissions from a non-linear model are likely to have a very big impact - e.g. the 'butterfly wings' effect. But the models have very big omissions - and so we might expect some big errors!
  2. As far as I can see there has been no effective raw material or model sharing or corroboration at the base level of model design, construction and testing. In fact, this has been resisted and there has not been a process of mutually 'looking under the hood'. As far as I am aware, and I could be wrong, nothing meaningful has been published in this regard.
  3. Most communication between the various teams and groups has been focused on achieving corroboration and agreement in the conclusions. This is a dangerous ethos that can often lead to a collective myopia that produces the results you wanted in the first place.
  4. The long-term source data comes from ice cores, tree rings and sedimentary layers - all of which are notoriously difficult to interpret. Add to this a very short period (250 years or so) of instrumented, and more accurate data, plus the lack of comprehensive global coverage, and it is clear that the opportunity for error is very high!
  5. Modelling to date assumes some linear, or linear-ish, relationship between temperature and greenhouse gases. So, reduce the gases and the temperature will also reduce is an obvious conclusion. However, the reality is that the system is non-linear and it could well be bi-stable. That is, it could have flipped into a new state, or at least exhibit hysteresis. In which case greenhouse gas production could continue no matter what - after all the planet generates far more greenhouse gas than we do, and warming runaway could be real.

So what do we actually know for sure? Something is happening! CO2, and other greenhouse gas content in our atmosphere is climbing. Up to a month ago I could have said that temperature is going the same way. But the recent debacle at the University of East Anglia - in which a series of leaked emails have revealed some 'adjustment of raw data' to get models and data to align - has cast some doubt on this and created quite an international debate.

Here is some coverage of the incident from The Telegraph, the Associated Press and CBC News.

Along with raising scepticism about the climate findings to date, the leaked emails have handed ammunition to those with vested interests elsewhere.

What is more than unfortunate is the wording of the emails, involving words like 'trick', which is not a form I would expect of scientists. The public defence by those involved and their supporters has also been less than professional in some cases.

See this debate between professor Andrew Watson, from the University of East Anglia, and climate expert Marc Morano. Wait for the final seconds in which Watson uses some choice language to describe Morano.

How did all this happen? The defendants strayed from points 1 - 5 above. They lapsed in their scientific rigour and got swept along on a wave of growing belief.

This is a very sad lesson, and it has happened before, and damage always results.

My view on global warming is that we should be prudent with all our resources anyway even if warming trends were proven to be a fallacy. More importantly, I think it obvious that the climatologists need to get their act together and take more than a cursory look at their respective models and data sources. They also need to publish and share their materials.

Global warming, and environmental prediction, is something we definitely need to get right. It has now worked up such a political and public head of steam that progress in the 'saving the planet direction' is unlikely to slow even if our ignorance of what to do results in more harm than good.

My fear is that much of what has been done already, in the name of saving the planet, is so obviously wrong and/or misguided, that we might actually have made the situation worse rather than better.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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