Cooler Heads prevail

2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

The Australian, October 21, 2014



DR Karl Kruszelnicki turned uncharacteristically snarky on Tony Delroy’s radio show last week. Delroy had been watching Catalyst, the ABC’s Thursday night science program, and had caught up with the news that global warming was falling behind schedule.

“Between the 70s and, sort of like, the early to the late 90s, there was a substantial rise in global temperatures,” said Delroy, “and it seems to have flattened out a bit since 1998.”

A slowing in the rate of global warming, or even a modest ­cooling, should be a welcome ­development. Perhaps we can carry on mining coal after all and help bring electricity to the 300 million Indians squatting in the darkness. Plastic bags could be restored to South Australian supermarket check-outs and the ugly word sustainability could be removed from the lexicon.

If there’s a downside, however, you can trust the ABC to find it.

“You’ve got to say that it is, for the climate change deniers, a window of opportunity. There’s a lot of high-profile people out there pushing the line, people like And­rew Bolt are out there every night.”

Dr Karl snapped back. “Ah, which university is he a professor of climate science at?”

Listen to the experts, urged Dr Karl. Climate scientists were ­“really unified”, he said. “Ignore opinions, stick with the facts.”

Well the fact, according to Catalyst, is that the planet hasn’t warmed since 1998. The computer models in which so much faith was invested got it wrong. “The most important question to answer in climate science today,” claims Catalyst’s narrator, is “what happened to global warming?”

It was always going to be interesting to watch how the experts would react once it became clear the science of climate change was not as settled as they once claimed.

“On one point the sceptics were right,” Catalyst’s Anja Taylor told viewers. “None of the models used in future climate projections predicted the hiatus. And while the slowdown for the first few years was written off as natural variability, lately it’s become something to explain.”

It was an Australian scientist, Bob Carter, who first drew attention to the flattening trend in an article in Britain’s The Telegraph in April 2006. Carter reviewed the official temperature records of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia for the years 1998 to 2005 and asked: “Does something not strike you as odd?”

Carter’s reward for identifying the lack of global warming was to have his professional reputation trashed. When Carter repeated his suggestion in the Australian press a year later, the CSIRO felt obliged to respond. Carter had presented “an unethical misrepresentation of the facts”, wrote Andrew Ash, acting director of the CSIRO’s Climate Adaptation Flagship. “All scientists welcome honest criticism since it helps to sharpen our analyses and improve our understanding, but scepticism based on half-truths and misrepresentation of facts is not helpful.”

ABC online’s The Drum refused to run his commentary. ABC Radio National’s science broadcaster Robyn Williams gave an open microphone to Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change communications director Bob Ward, who accused Carter of “desperately seeking bits of information to back up a ­theory”.

Political scientist Robert Manne said the likes of Carter, award-winning geologist Ian Plimer and former head of the National Climate Centre at the Bureau of Meteorology William Kininmonth “have to be resisted and indeed denounced” along with the “anti-political correctness and anti-collectivist ideologues, the right-wing media and the fossil fuel corporations”.

As recently as two years ago, former finance minister Nick Minchin was mocked on the ABC’s Q&A for suggesting that temperatures had plateaued. “There is a major problem with the warmist argument because we have had rising CO2 but we haven’t had the commensurate rise in temperature that the IPCC predicted,” he said.

“That’s just not true Nick,” responded Anna Rose, chairwoman of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition.

The University of NSW’s Matthew England joined in. “What Nick just said is actually not true. The IPCC projections of 1990 have borne out very accurately the projections now 22 years old.”

As it happens, it was true. The 1990 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report predicted temperature rises of 0.3C each decade. In fact, according to the latest report global temperatures have risen only 0.14C per decade since 1978.

In September last year a draft version of the fifth assessment report of the IPCC’s working group 1 that assesses the physical science of climate finally acknowledged the gap between computer projections and observed surface temperatures between 1998 and 2012. The IPCC was not so bold as to admit that its previous reports were wrong. It did accept, however, that there had been a “global mean surface temperature trend hiatus”, which amounts to the same thing.

If science worked as purely as Francis Bacon suggested it should, by the application of induction and observation, climate science would have moved on by now. Experts, however, are only human. Too many professional reputations have been invested in a fixed idea for it to be simply abandoned.

The heating has not stopped, we are told, it has simply “paused”. The word bristles with presumption. Despite their appalling track record in the past 20 years, climate scientists still believe they can predict how temperatures will move in the future.

“The ocean is absorbing huge amounts of heat energy and then will toss it back on us further along,” Dr Karl told Delroy.

Nobody suggested that temperatures should rise in a straight line, he said. “It’s much more complicated than that … there are so many factors involved, El Nino, La Nina, Pacific Decadal Oscillation, etc, that suggests that you need a 17-year window to able to look past the noise.

“And here they are saying we’re looking at a nine-year window and it looks sort of not as uppity as before. Well that’s easy, it’s not a 17-year window.”

In 1997 Christopher Pearson, sceptic extraordinaire, wrote a column pondering what would happen when the news finally filtered through that greenhouse forecasts had been vastly exaggerated. “Perhaps, having safely neg­otiated the millennium, which is a major cause of all this anxiety, we may collectively surrender to a bout of unqualified optimism,” Pearson wrote. “I doubt it.”

There would be fresh catastrophes on offer, Pearson predicted, since “the appetite for catastrophe is now highly developed and mass media delight in pandering to it”.