A Few Things Ill Considered

Disagreeing with the IPCC’s approach

There is a very interesting article on Nature.com that provides an example of something a bit uncommon in the climate wars: an intelligent and well reasoned disagreement with the IPCC. (h/t to Climate Etc.)

The article is well worth the read in its entirety, but its central point is a relatively straightforward one. The smaller the portion of the earth’s surface (or time period for that matter) you are examining, the more difficult and less useful it is to consider attribution of climate change. And yet, the IPCC, according to this article, is seeking research that specifically attributes biological responses to the root cause of a changing local environment.

As biological impacts provide evidence of climate change independently of temperature measurements, they have successfully bolstered ‘detection’, strengthening the scientific consensus that Earth is warming[refs]. However, now that warming is “unequivocal”[ref], contrarian arguments have shifted from whether warming is happening to whether it can be attributed to human activity. In this context, biologists are now expected to shift away from detection towards attribution — that is, assessing the extent to which observed biological changes are being driven by greenhouse-gas-induced climate change versus natural climate variability. This expectation is formalized in a guidance paper for scientists taking part in the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)[ref].

The article continues:

It is rarely possible to attribute specific responses of individual wild species to human-induced climate change. This is partly because human forcing of the climate is only detectable on large spatial scales, yet organisms experience local climate. Moreover, in any given region, species’ responses to climate change are idiosyncratic, owing to basic differences in their biology. A further complication is that responses to climate are inextricably intertwined with reactions to other human modifications of the environment. Even where climate is a clear driver of change, little insight is gained by asking what proportion of the overall trend is due to greenhouse gases versus solar activity. From the perspective of a wild plant or animal, a changing climate is a changing climate, irrespective of its cause.

All very sensible stuff, IMO, and I think they make an excellent political point as well:

By over-emphasizing the need for rigorous assessment of the specific role of greenhouse-gas forcing in driving observed biological changes, the IPCC effectively yields to the contrarians’ inexhaustible demands for more ‘proof’, rather than advancing the most pressing and practical scientific questions. This focus diverts energies and research funds away from developing crucial adaptation and conservation measures.

I think this point generalizes beyond the IPCC’s focus on attribution of ecosystem respones to the broader problems with climate science communication. Being sensible, rational people (by and large), the scientific community thinks that presenting solid evidence of a serious problem will lead human societies to seek and implement solutions to said problem. Since American society is not in fact actively seeking any solutions to the problem of climate change, they must need more and stronger evidence.

But this is not the problem, the scientific case has been made. What the IPCC is striving for now, at least as evidenced by the example above, is akin to talking louder and louder to someone who simply does not speak english. I think the IPCC continues to be a tremendously valuable resource and hope it continues to fulfill its mandate, but it should, as should all working scientists, stay focused on scientifically useful topics of research and not let the false debate with false skeptics shape its direction and tone.

Comments

  1. #1 adelady
    April 23, 2011

    I love that image.

    Speaking louder and louder, slower and slower, will never help – especially when someone doesn’t understand and won’t bother to find a translator.

  2. #2 adelady
    April 23, 2011

    “… the IPCC effectively yields to the contrarians’ inexhaustible demands for more ‘proof’…”

    Surely this is the same path that the creationists tread.

    Every time someone identifies a fossil that fills a “gap” in the record, they automatically create two new gaps. Thereby providing the irrational with further cause to argue.

    New climate evidence becomes fodder to fuel further argument from the stubborn, just as it does for the creationists.

  3. #3 Alan
    April 23, 2011

    Sorry but restraining the IPCC from asking difficult to answer questions would seem to me a win for the willfully ignorant. Regardless of the inherent difficulty of their question, is attribution somehow not the next logical step after observation?

    I also don’t see anything in the IPCC quote about local climate or individual species. Strawman? – Or are these details burried somewhere in the unlinked pdf?

    As for diverting funds from “crucial adaptation and conservation measures”, how can biologists constructively advise policy makers on these issues if they don’t rigourously examine what is driving the observed changes?

    Finnaly, I don’t agree that being sensible and rational is a hinderence to communication. The driver for ever stonger evidence is not to convince deniers, it’s a central tenent of the scientific prosses. Do we not smash atoms together every day in the hope of breaking extremely robust models that are not the subject of intense disinformation campaigns?

    Climate scientists as a group have done a fantastic job communicating a complex subject to the general population in simple language and they have done so in the face of death threats, political persecution, and a well funded progpoganda machine. The fact that some of their audience heckles them or sticks their fingers in their ears in no way detracts from their communication skills. It simply demonstrates that some vested interests are morally bankrupt and some portion of the general population are neither rational or sensible.

  4. #4 Pierce R. Butler
    April 23, 2011

    What we need is a planetary effort (at least as great as that devoted to climatology) which monitors the biosphere, mapping and inventorying organisms and their habitats in explicitly ecological terms.

    With enough data collected systematically and in consistent metrics, then correlation with climate change(s) and perhaps even causation could be estimated, and useful conclusions of the sort IPCC wants reached.

    My impression is that much of the work of this sort being done is focused on particular species and regions, with its synthesis left to bureaucracies and advocacy groups: all doing their best with inadequate resources and in the face of overwhelming economic opposition, but failing to educate the public and decision makers about a cumulative extinction crisis arguably as vast and consequential as the greenhouse gases problem.

  5. #5 Oale
    April 23, 2011

    Yes, attribution is a likely logical step, until the logic gets thrown away. One must also bear in mind that attribution is sometimes made in the coroner’s office, f.e., there still might be some river dolphins somewhere, though I haven’t personally seen those.
    Here’s one plan to make the attribution even harder, if you’re interested on that kind of stuff.

  6. #6 David Horton
    April 23, 2011

    With respect to you and Nature this is nonsense. Telling the public that the globe is slowly warming is such an esoteric concept and so far from everyday experience that it is largely futile. Pointing out that such warming will translate (and has already translated) into direct effects on forests, oceans, grasslands, ice caps, mountains and the species that live there (including domesticated species of direct value to humans) is much more likely to attract attention. Conversely such effects are of the kind that ordinary members of the public can have some hope of observing (early flowering, early nesting, species scarcity, appearance of strange species) where they can’t access satellite and other measurements or interpret them.

    Finally biological changes of necessity act to combine many changes in climate that might otherwise be seen individually as relatively inconsequential to city dwelling humans – if species distributions and behaviours are changing then something is certainly rotten in the state of Denmark (and all the other states). To suggest that the IPCC shouldn’t report on the biological effects of global warming, however hard these might be to individually quantify, is to play right into the hands of the denial industry, who would be delighted if the practical consequences of ghg production remained unknown.

    Or do you think that there have been and will be no ecological changes as a result of global warming?

  7. #7 Oale
    April 23, 2011

    To be more serious – climate change has been a slow process on human/animal scale so the reproductive cycle has allowed some individuals to adapt to the physical process of anthropogenic climate change. This is likely easiest to prove by looking at plant/plant pathogen interactions as pathogens are of opportunistic nature and have a relatively fast reproductive cycle. This may present the local plant communities irrecoverable difficulties, though some difficulties for them are already present through physical effects of AGW. Physical effects of Climate Change (also the natural climate change) exceeds the adaptive capability of local biotopes, and consequently the species that inhabit them either die or move (likely communally, as they’ve used to get by with each other) to the location they’re performing best according to their genetics, as evidenced f.e. by the movement of individual plant species, which in turn is evidenced by pollen records, during the warm up from the last glacial period.

    On the previous text there are at least 14 points to disagree with if one discards science as is done by US house of representatives. How many do you find?

  8. #8 coby
    April 24, 2011

    A few comments here indicate to me that I may have been misunderstood. Rather than make direct responses I will instead make explicit a few personal opinions/points:
    – the ecological consequences of climate change are in my mind the most significant and the major cause for concern.
    – communicating the extent of current and future changes is a crucial task of the IPCC
    – detection of climate change in biological systems is a valuable line of research but we are usually talking about a regional climate in such research
    – detection is not attribution and the IPCC absolutely should be addressing the issue of attribution. Attribution of global changes is a global study.
    – the strongest evidence for a human cause of global climate change will not be found in ecosystem responses to said change so looking for it there is NOT the best approach from a strictly scientific POV
    – it is not my intention to disparrage the efforts of the IPCC or any other climate science outreach efforts in communicating the science. My point is that that job is largely done, the real problems lie elsewhere.

  9. #9 jcrabb
    April 24, 2011

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U219eUIZ7Qo

    Extreme worst case messages can be effective, of course the message works because there is little uncertainty and the effects of AIDS are personal, immediate and catastrophic.

    In the raft of effects of Global warming the only effect that is potentially personally catastrophic immediately is the ongoing release of Methane from the East Central Siberia (Shakhova) which could release, at any time, a burst of gigatonnes leading to either catastrophic explosion or extreme GW.

    Not holding breath for the ads though.

  10. #10 Pierce R. Butler
    April 24, 2011

    jcrabb @ # 9: … the only effect that is potentially personally catastrophic immediately is the ongoing release of Methane from the East Central Siberia (Shakhova) … Not holding breath for the ads though.

    At least the (deliberately) overblown catastrophe novel has already been published! (Well, okay, the release is from Arctic Ocean clathrates off the north Siberian coast – but that’s close enough for Hollywood…)

  11. #11 greenfyre
    April 24, 2011

    Great find Coby, and cogent observations.

    “a bit uncommon”??? going for the British gross understatement?

  12. #12 Neil Craig
    April 24, 2011

    So if catastrophic warming is “consensus” rather than a scam the author of this wil be able to name thousands of, or at least 2, independent scientists, not funded by the governemnt. who support it to match the 31,000 who say it is fales.

    No? Not surprised, neither has Mann or Jpnes or ANYBODY in the eco-fascist movement.

  13. #13 greenfyre
    April 24, 2011

    @ Neil The Oregon Petition is one of the most pathetic frauds going

    The great Petition Fraud

    The Oregon Petition

    The only thing more ridiculous than the “petition” is the idiotic collection of distortions, errors, and lies that it claims are “science”

    Pls take the few min required to actually learn the facts before posting comments anywhere. Wasting everyone’s time with uninformed opinions is extremely rude.

  14. #14 Wow
    April 24, 2011

    There isn’t 31,000 independent scientists in that list. Maybe 12 tops.

    And what defines “not funded by the government”, since all R&D in the USA has some government help?

  15. #15 Gingerbaker
    April 24, 2011

    “So if catastrophic warming is “consensus” rather than a scam the author of this wil be able to name thousands of, or at least 2, independent scientists, not funded by the governemnt. who support it to match the 31,000 who say it is fales.

    No? Not surprised, neither has Mann or Jpnes or ANYBODY in the eco-fascist movement.”

    Well, you’ve convinced me, Neil.. I can’t thank you enough.

  16. #16 David Horton
    April 24, 2011

    What is it Barnum said there was one born every minute of, I forget. Still the next dictionary could use post #12 as an example of whatever it is. Typos and all.

  17. #17 jcrabb
    April 24, 2011

    Pierce, Methane (some 40 gigatonnes) sequestered under the East Siberian sea is in gaseous form, and is only contained by a thin layer of permafrost.

    Hey Neil, you think ‘Eco-facism’ is bad now, with the outrageous demands for no Asbestos, no lead in fuel, CO2 reduction, no waling etc, wait until food supplies are even more disrupted by weather chaos over the next twenty years that rationing is imposed, then you will see some real eco-facism.

    An example of ongoing weather chaos can be seen in the expansion of the tropical weather pattern zone over the last fifty years. There is some evidence to suggest that this expansion has changed South Australia’s weather to being even more arid, by forcing rainbearing frontal systems further south, meaning they no longer pass over land.

    So on a personal level, thanks, cos it’s nuts like you that have helped create a wall of stupid that has hindered efforts to curtail CO2 emissions.

    Still Neil represents a pervasive wall, so powerful that it can cause total Media, Government and Industry silence on the radioactive plume being emitted by Fukushima.

    http://transport.nilu.no/browser/fpv_fuku?fpp=conccol_Xe-133_;region=NH

  18. #18 Jack
    April 24, 2011

    I would like to understand a little better the fresh water reports from the Artic, they report that fresh melt/fresh water is saturated with CO2. This indicates that the CO2 is coming out of an aqueous salt water soluation boiling up due to a density difference. The new layer of fresh water is less dense, releasing the Co2 and it saturates the less dense fresh water on top, where it is then released back to our atmosphere. There was a minor extinction event about 26 million years ago, reported to be related to this type of Co2 release. I would like to see monitoring station set up to record and map Co2 release in fresh melt area’s of the Artic.

  19. #19 Ben Lawson
    April 25, 2011

    I see the ditto machine (e.g. comments 12 and 13) is still firing…

  20. #20 mandas
    April 26, 2011

    I’m back from the wilds of Yorke Peninsula. Interesting trip. Interesting diving. Lots of seals, but not too many sharks unfortunately.

    But on to the topic. As a wildlife scientist I would like to express my strong concurrence for the article in Nature. It is my job – indeed it is the job of any wildlife or animal researcher – to look at changes in the distribution of species, and attempt to attribute causes. And in some cases, it is possible to conclude that distribution changes are the result of climate change.

    HOWEVER – and it a VERY big however – it is not our job to then determine that the observed climate change is as a result of anthropogenic factors. Now, I have no doubt that current climate change IS caused by humans, but I would NEVER put that in any paper or report I prepared, because it is not apparent in the data that I collect.

    It is definitely possible to observe a shift in distribution of a species and conclude that the shift correlates with changes in temperature or rainfall etc, but that is where my conclusions must stop. I can SUGGEST that the observed changes in temperature are consistent with other research into climate which showed that there was an XX increase in temperature as a result of anthropogenic climate change, but it would be unethical for me to attribute the change in species distribution to anthropogenic factors. I can only EVER attribute it to climate change. I then leave it to others to make the correlation between climate change and human emissions etc.

    It is important that scientists do not overstate their case – even if the case APPEARS obvious. Let’s stick to the facts and the evidence, and leave the lying and unethical behaviour to those that do it best.

  21. #21 David Horton
    April 26, 2011

    “Let’s stick to the facts and the evidence, and leave the lying and unethical behaviour to those that do it best.” But mandas that is exactly what will happen with your approach. If good people stay silent on what is happening to our world then you you leave the public space to be occupied by those who will stop at nothing to make sure that when it comes to action on climate change we will stop at nothing. This isn’t a scientific debate we are having it is an ideological one.

  22. #22 adelady
    April 26, 2011

    Not so sure david.

    Mandas should stick to science conventions when writing material for scientific publication.

    That of course doesn’t stop him from walking across the campus from wherever he’s writing and getting a beer and announcing to all and sundry at the staff club bar or the student union dining room that his work shows more evidence of ……

    There are times and places for everything. The fact that one particular place is off-limits is not very limiting. Count the number of pubs, cafes, halls, clubs, churches, sports teams and school parents committees in every city. Then add in all the national and international newspapers, magazines and blogs.

    Plenty of scope.

  23. #23 David Horton
    April 26, 2011

    Agreed Adelady.

  24. #24 mandas
    April 26, 2011

    David

    “….. But mandas that is exactly what will happen with your approach. If good people stay silent on what is happening to our world then you you leave the public space to be occupied by those who will stop at nothing to make sure that when it comes to action on climate change we will stop at nothing. This isn’t a scientific debate we are having it is an ideological one…..”

    I think it highly unlikely that anyone will ever accuse me of ‘staying silent’. And as Adelady has pointed out, there is a time and place to put your case, and as I suggested, it does no-one any credit to draw conclusions or make extrapolations which far exceed the data you have available.

    If I was to conclude in a paper that an observed change in species distribution was due to AGW, I would rightfully be taken to task by the scientific community. As I said, if the evidence suggested that it was because of climate change, them I COULD draw that conclusion (and have!), but it would be far outside the scope of the study or the available data to conclude the climate change was human induced.

    But then, I work for the Government, and a lot of my job is to provide policy advice to the Minister. And there is nothing wrong with me putting two and two together when providing that advice.

  25. #25 David Horton
    April 26, 2011

    mandas that is good to hear. I wasn’t suggesting a kind of wild extrapolation, but it seems to me there are scientists who take being dispassionate to damaging lengths – “well, species distributions (and things such as breeding or flowering times) are certainly changing in the last 30 years, but I can’t suggest anything this might possibly be associated with”. This leaves a vacuum where the evidence can be ignored – “see, even x doesn’t suggest climate change is happening”.

  26. #26 adelady
    April 27, 2011

    David. For communication, I think it’s more important to choose your evidence.

    The cherry blossom festivals in Japan have a long written record. If you know anyone interested in touring Japan you can easily throw in a remark about checking when the cherry blossom is predicted to open in that district because …

    There are a couple of other iconic natural events across the world. For wine buffs, there’s also replacing vineyards in Vic and other regions because the climate is now unsuitable for the grapes traditionally grown there. And so on ….

  27. #27 Ben
    April 28, 2011

    Attribution is great, but since the models don’t allow one to make attributions that are robust and couldn’t be explained by local and small-scale temporal and resource fluctuations, for example, than we cannot make attributions. One of my profs. is a world-known specialist on carbon cycling and at the end of a lecture he said “Here’s something we don’t know about climate change” and showed us an article claiming that plant flowering times of a certain species appear to have shifted over recent years, they now come later in the growing season, and said “It would be nice if we could attribute this to climate change but we can’t, this paper is b.s.”

  28. #28 mandas
    April 28, 2011

    Ben

    I am not sure about your professor, nor the paper to which he was referring, but I would be very surprised by any claim which suggests it is impossible to attribute changes in flowering times etc to climate change. It may be impossible in terms of the paper – they may not have collected the data on climate or used a control – but that is an issue with that particular paper, and not with the ability of science in general to do that attribution.

    Further, I am really confused by your reference to the spatial or temporal scale of models. Models have nothing to do with it. Attribution of changes in species distribution etc should be based on actual observations – such as the observed changes in temperature etc over the period of the distribution change, and not on the predictions or hindcasts of a model.

    Perhaps you should have asked your professor ‘why’ the paper was bullshit. Was it because the study did not collect the data on climate, so it was not possible to make the attribution from the evidence available? Or was it because, in his considered opinion, it is never possible to attribute changes in flowering times etc to climate change? If the former – fine. If the latter – he is wrong, and I must wonder why he would make such an obviously fallacious statement.

  29. #29 crakar
    May 20, 2011

    Post 28 is classic Mandas,he begins by saying he has no knowledge of the paper Ben is reffering to nor the professor Ben is quoting he ends by saying maybe the paper was crap or the proffessor is full of crap because he would be wrong.

    Now Mandas i do find this subject interesting so could you please list all of the factors that could affect the flowering times of one or several species of plants.

  30. #30 Wow
    May 20, 2011

    cracker still avoiding questions on several threads.

    He won’t answer a question EVER. The MO?

    0) Ask cracker-ass a question
    1) Cracer-ass asks a question back
    2) Refuses to answer the question in 0 until his question is answered
    3) If his question is answered either
    4a) Pretend your answer is wrong
    4b) Ask more questions
    5) Ask cracer-ass to answer question posed in 0
    6) goto 1

    As you can see, there is no exit loop here.

    This is how the denialist likes it. Refuse to answer, continue to pester.

  31. #31 Wow
    May 20, 2011

    “Further, I am really confused by your reference to the spatial or temporal scale of models. Models have nothing to do with it.”

    Maybe Ben thinks that we’re living in The Matrix and that flowers only bloom when you call the flower.bloom() function call.

    Alternatively, Ben doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about but believes that AGW is wrong because he knows it’s wrong and evidence would just confuse him.

    Ben: “but since the models don’t allow one to make attributions that are robust and couldn’t be explained by local and small-scale temporal and resource fluctuations”

    They do allow you to do so and local fluctuations can’t explain large scale changes. The plants can’t go on a summer holiday to the nearby microclime, you know.

    Well, maybe you don’t.

    “and showed us an article claiming that plant flowering times of a certain species appear to have shifted over recent years, they now come later in the growing season, and said “It would be nice if we could attribute this to climate change but we can’t, this paper is b.s.”"

    So he didn’t show you why climate change couldn’t explain it.

    Where was your skepticism?

    Why was: “It’s getting warmer, so the temperate range is moving north and the plants are moving northwards, as are the pests sounds likely enough to investigate to me” not on your tongue?

    Because you want to believe that AGW is false?

    That’s called gullibility, not skepticism and not science.

  32. #32 crakar
    May 20, 2011

    Did you get stuck with the night shift Wow?

    Ben is quoting a professor on the subject at hand and all you can do is respond with shit, my oh my you are indeed the classic fool just like that idiot Mandas.

  33. #33 Wow
    May 20, 2011

    And still asking questions, avoiding answers.

    It’s rather amusing that you prove my point for me.

    Plenty of time to post, but no time to answer questions. Since he doesn’t know the answers, he can’t. And he daren’t own up to not knowing: people might not believe him when he states some “fact” he just found.

  34. #34 Chris S.
    May 20, 2011

    crakar, are you sure you want to go here? For starters you may want to read some of the following:

    Ecological responses to recent climate change (2002) Walther et al. Nature

    Trophic level asynchrony in rates of phenological change for marine, freshwater and terrestrial environments (2010) Thackeray et al. Global Change Biology

    Responses of spring phenology to climate change (2004) Badeck et al.

    A globally coherent fingerprint of climate change impacts across natural systems (2003) Parmesan et al. Nature

    (In fact I’d recommend all of Camille Parmesan’s work on this subject & also the work of Visser & Both).

    And I mean read them, not pretend to.

  35. #35 Chris S.
    May 20, 2011

    That of course is Professor Camille Parmesan.

  36. #36 mandas
    May 20, 2011

    crakar

    Why won’t you condemn Wegmann for plagiarism?

  37. #37 crakar
    May 21, 2011

    Chris post 29 was written to highlight how Mandas can take a few morsels of info and spin it into a solid robust rebuttal, typical of him.

    My question regarding the “list” was genuine, i assumed there was a list of factors affecting such things? Mandas is obviously an expert on this subject now so i asked him to supply said list, that is all.