Editor's Note: reason Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey will be filing a series of regular dispatches from the Heartland Institute's controversial International Conference on Climate Change. Below is the second in that series.
New York, March 3—I spent the second day of the Heartland Institute's International Climate Change Conference listening to presentations in the climatology track. This means that I missed all of the presentations on paleoclimatology, the politics of climate change, the economics of climate change, and the impacts of climate change, not to mention the four different documentaries questioning climate change alarmism.
News flash: Climate skeptics don't agree among themselves about what, if anything, is going on with the world's climate. Occasionally there was something of a camp-meeting atmosphere among participants. It is clear that some feel victimized by those who are promoting the idea that man-made global warming is a big problem requiring immediate action. In any case, the climate skeptics began their day early with well-attended breakfast presentations starting at 7:00 a.m. One of the breakfast presenters was University of Guelph environmental economist Ross McKitrick. McKitrick and statistician Stephen McIntyre are the duo that pointed out the flaws in the famous "hockey stick" reconstruction of historical climate data by climatologist Michael Mann. The "hockey stick" purported to show that the 20th century was the warmest century in 1,000 years. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) featured it as evidence for climate change prominently in its Third Assessment Report.
In 2006, a National Research Council report dealing with controversy concluded that it was "plausible" that temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere were warmer in the 20th century than for any comparable period in the last 1,000 years. However, McKitrick and Ross were more or less vindicated when the NRC report added tellingly that "substantial uncertainties" in the data undermined confidence in any assessment of temperature changes prior to the year 1600 which just happened to have been near the nadir of the Little Ice Age. Furthermore, the NRC noted, "Even less confidence can be placed in the original conclusions by Mann et al. (1999) that 'the 1990s are likely the warmest decade, and 1998 the warmest year, in at least a millennium' because the uncertainties inherent in temperature reconstructions for individual years and decades are larger than those for longer time periods and because not all of the available proxies record temperature information on such short timescales."
Over breakfast, McKitrick presented recently published work in the Journal of Geophysical Research (JGR) showing that the surface temperature dataset are seriously contaminated by extraneous factors. Basically, climatologists try to take into account effects like urbanization, industrialization, and other land use changes and adjust temperature data accordingly to reveal the actual temperature trends. McKitrick tested the hypothesis that all these surface processes had been correctly filtered out which would imply that their effect on temperature data would be zero. He reported to the audience that this was not so. It turns out that the richer the country, the higher the temperature. McKitrick estimates that properly accounting for these non-climatic socioeconomic effects would cut "the estimated 1980-2002 global average temperature trend over land by about half."
Naturally such a conclusion has not gone unnoticed by those scientists concerned about the dangers of man-made global warming. McKitrick says that he has in fact run further tests to take into account their criticisms and asked to publish his additional results as a reply in the JGR. However, the editor told him that since no one had sent in a critique, there was reason to publish a reply. McKitrick said that he has asked one of his chief critics to write up his critique and submit it, so that he could reply in the peer-reviewed literature.
So after breakfast, I settled into the room where the climatology track took place. A good bit of the climatology track was devoted to critiquing the general circulation climate models (GCMs) For example, University of Rochester physicist David Douglass presented the results of his recent study that compared the outputs of 22 different climate models with observational temperature data in the tropical troposphere. According to Douglass, the models show that tropical troposphere should warm as much as 3 times faster than surface. However, when this result is checked against observational temperature data from satellites and weather balloons, it turns out the surface and troposphere warm at about the same rate. Thus, Douglass concludes, greenhouse gases must be having only a minor impact on global temperature trends. Naturally, this study is controversial.
One of the more remarkable performances was by Australian entrepreneur David C. Archibald during one of the afternoon panels. Archibald is described in the conference materials as "a scientist operating in the fields of cancer research, climate science, and oil exploration." He also appears to have business interests in some oil fields in Australia. In any case, Archibald made it very clear that he is a big believer in the idea that climate change is primarily driven by the sun. Archibald's basic theory is that when the sun's magnetic field strength drops there are fewer sunspots which reduce the amount of particles ejected as the solar wind. Less solar wind allows more galactic cosmic rays to enter the Earth's atmosphere. Archibald is here relying on studies by Danish physicist Henrik Svensmark which find that cosmic rays do produce cloud condensation nuclei which then might create low level clouds that reflect more sunlight back into space thus making the Earth colder.
Archibald predicts that the next solar cycle, Cycle 24, will produce a weak magnetic field which means that more cosmic rays will enter the atmosphere to create clouds and thus cool the earth. Actually, a 2007 NASA scientific panel was evenly split on the strong/weak prediction for Cycle 24. However, many researchers expect that Cycle 25 may be one the weakest in centuries. Archibald ended by boldly predicting that the world will see average temperatures drop by -2.2 degrees centigrade in the coming decade. That's more than three times the amount of warming the world has experienced over the last century. He also predicted as a consequence that the growing seasons in the United States would be shortened by a total of four weeks, dramatically reducing food production.
So as I puzzled over these presentations, it seems to me that we're being offered three different sets of predictions. First, there's the IPCC prediction that the next couple of decades should warm up at a rate of +0.2 degrees centigrade per decade (which is not all that different from climatologist Patrick Michael's rate of +0.17 degrees per decade.) Interestingly, as I've mentioned many times before, the U.K.'s Hadley Centre is predicting that average global temperatures in 2014 will be +0.3 degrees warmer than they were in 2004. Second, there are the climate skeptics who do not believe that warming will continue and expect a bit of cooling. And for those of an apocalyptic frame of mind, they have Archibald's -2.2 degrees of cooling over the next decade.
Finally, one of the more disquieting presentations was by retired TV meteorologist Anthony Watts. Part of Watts' training back when he was getting his degree in 1970s was to construct a Stevenson screen in which to shelter weather instruments. When he was putting it together his hands got covered in whitewash. He complained to his professor and suggested that he paint it with latex paint instead. His professor objected that whitewash had been used since 1892 and new paints would change the way the instruments functioned and possibly bias the data they collected. The U.S. Weather Bureau changed paints in the late 1970s.
With time on his hands, a retired Watts decided to run a back yard test with Stevenson screens using whitewash, white latex paint, unpainted wood and an aspirated temperature shield. He measured for several months, but typical among his results was one day in August when he found that the bare screen registered a maximum daytime temperature of 98.47 degrees, the latex screen was 97.74 degrees, the whitewashed one was 96.94 and the aspirated temperature shield reported 95.03 degrees.
Watts decided to check to see how the Stevenson screens housing nearby weather stations that were part of the U.S. Historical Climatology Network (USHCN) had been painted. What Watts discovered was much more disturbing—many USHCN weather stations were deplorably placed near parking lots, air conditioning vents, under shade trees, at sewage treatment plants, and so forth.
Watts then proceeded to show the audience slide after slide of badly, even absurdly, sited weather stations. Watts has now created a website of volunteers who are working to identify and audit the siting of all USHCN weather stations. The results are reported at SurfaceStations.org (regrettably down for maintenance at the moment. But for 50 examples of badly sited stations, go here.) So far Watts' volunteers have reported 502 of the 1221 stations in the U.S., and only 13 percent of the network so far conforms to the National Weather Service's own best practices manual. This is shocking when one considers that these are the same surface stations that climatologists rely upon to detect temperature trends.
The International Conference on Climate Change wraps up tomorrow with presentations by, among other notables, Vaclav Klaus, President of the Czech Republic (again at the 7:00 am breakfast slot), hurricane expert William Gray, and University of Alabama at Huntsville climatologist Roy Spencer.
Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His most recent book, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, is available from Prometheus Books.