Saturday, 4 August 2012

Conversion of a skeptic. Really?

The New York times let him write an op-ed. The Guardian blogged about him. The BBC had a piece about him on their news website. The Carbon Brief interviewed him. Twitter was buzzing with his name. Richard Muller was the talk of the day. Why; had he discovered something exceptional? Had he found the cure for cancer? Had he solved the hunger problem? No. He had found something out that had already been known for decades. So why all the excitement? I’m not so sure!

So what was the issue? Muller suspected there was something wrong with the current global average land temperature records. So he set out to investigate. Land temperatures are, of course, only a small part of the climate story, but he does have a point that most humans reside on land, and are therefore much more interested in land temperatures. And these are hardly independent of the ocean temperatures; the oceans have a much higher volume and heat capacity than the land (or rather; the atmosphere at a little bit above the surface, where land temperature is traditionally measured). But one can only do so much at any given time. And measuring temperatures is hampered by urbanisation and uneven distribution of measuring stations. So far no problem: it's always good if someone keeps a critical eye.

It took him and his co-workers a few years to trawl through the data. They’re done now; the accompanying manuscript has been submitted to JGR. His conclusions: actually, the records are fine. Temperatures are rising. And he goes further: humans are too blame. So far still so good. It had long been established, but there’s nothing wrong with corroboration.

Muller in action

Was that what all the buzz was about? No, it was about his conversion from climate skeptic to climate, well, scientist. Does it matter? Maybe! People like senator Inhofe have one person less to point at, saying that scientists have no consensus (like these people) and climate change is a hoax. And that’s good.

But does it mean Muller is a lighting example for climate science? No. His article is not yet published; it will be up to the editors of JGR whether he did a thorough enough job for his work to be published. If he does then we have another interesting article. But with Muller it seems not be about what he publishes, but what he says outside science. And that makes my hair stand up. Listen yourself to what he says here. My problems with these things are (in more or less chronological order):

1)    He sees a distinction between global warming and climate change. He only acknowledges the first. He acts as if these things are not related. But every rational person will see that atmospheric temperature is an aspect of climate, and that, for instance, temperature and ice volume are not independent. If you only look at land temperatures you’re missing most of the story. If you think climate change goes away when you disprove a rise in land temperature you’re not a very believable scientist. Just pointing out that some people attribute Hurricane Katrina to global warming, which indeed can’t be done, does not mean global warming is not part of the much wider process of (anthropogenic) climate change.

2)    He claims the US CO2 output is dropping. That’s not in the paper, that’s not a statement backed up by data. I struggled to find recent data on this. This blog gives a graph, and it indeed shows a decline, but the figures are provided by BP, and the report they came from  has a disclaimer that says "BP regrets it is unable to deal with enquiries about the data" so I won't take their word for it. I do hope Muller is right, but I would like him to point out where he got the data from. 

3)    His thoughts on the solution boil down to: change China! I’m not saying China does not pollute, or that it pollutes a lot, but it’s not helping if non-Chinese get all patronising and want to “help” China to develop clean technologies, while proclaiming that they themselves are not the problem and don’t have to cut down on their own pollution.

4)    He dismisses 90% of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth without getting into detail on what exactly is wrong with it. In the scientific community, this film/book is accepted as largely correct.

5)    He attributes global warming to humans, simply by fitting the temperature curve and the CO2 curve. And many of us have done such fitting exercises, but it's not the pinnacle of science. Muller, however, claims he has done a better job than anybody had before. That is blatantly untrue: lots of proper research (like this for instance) has been done on attributing climate change to various causes.

6)    He lashes out at Michael Mann, using false arguments. He for instance says Mann denies the existence of the Medieval Warm Period, while in reality, Mann is one of the main authors to discuss this feature (e.g. here). Do read Mike Mann’s Facebook page, by the way (it’s public); he has gone through the effort of dismissing all the false statements, with links to proof.

So what is my conclusion? I think Muller just likes the limelight. I would pay attention to what he manages to get published, as that will have withstood a critical eye. But I don’t believe a thing of what he says which is not backed up by solid evidence. A man like this might be more a Trojan Horse than anything else: pretend to be a bona fide scientist, and as soon as people believe that, fill their minds with rubbish. Watch out for Muller! And do to him what he did to the temperature records: first evaluate it properly, and only then decide if you believe it or not…

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