Scientific American steps in it

By Andy May

The left-wing Scientific American published a so-called review of Steven Koonin’s new book, Unsettled, by a number of prominent left-wing scientists. The article is headed by the mandatory sunset photo of steam coming out of powerplant chimneys. The article is not really a review, their substantive claims are very weak, it is really a hit piece to trash Koonin and his reputation in the best Naomi Oreskes’ and Union of Concerned Scientists’ odious style. But throwing rocks from glass houses invites them to be thrown back, and what goes around comes around. What little scientific content is present in the article is dealt with at the end of this post, their scientific arguments are as vacuous as their attacks on Koonin.

Naomi Oreskes is the senior author of the hit piece, which is no surprise, that is what she does. Oreskes was famously humiliated in court by content expert Kimberly Neuendorf (ExxonMobil, 2018a) (May, 2020c, p. 169). Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran (a co-author of the Scientific American slander piece) wrote a peer-reviewed article for Environmental Research Letters (Supran & Oreskes, 2017), that supposedly used “content analysis” to show that ExxonMobil was saying one thing about climate change publicly and another in private. However, their content analysis was sloppy, poorly done, and biased. In the words of Kimberly A. Neuendorf, the prominent expert in such analyses (she abbreviates Supran and Oreskes as “S&O”):

“S&O’s content analysis does not support the study’s conclusions because of a variety of fundamental errors in their analysis. S&O’s content analysis lacks reliability, validity, objectivity, generalizability, and replicability. These basic standards of scientific inquiry are vital for a proper content analysis, but they are not satisfied by the S&O study.” (ExxonMobil, 2018a, Attachment A)

Neuendorf’s book, The Content Analysis Guidebook, is the standard reference in this area. Most of the errors identified by Neuendorf spring from poor sampling of ExxonMobil content. S&O improperly grouped together communications that vary across time and by author and audience. They also group statements by Exxon and Mobil, before they merged, as if they were one entity. Further, S&O coded the communications themselves rather than using objective and uninvolved coders, this renders their work non-replicable and unscientific (May, 2020c, p. 169). It is hard to take either of these authors seriously.

The second author is Michael Mann, the main author of the notorious hockey stick. This very flawed “reconstruction” of Northern Hemisphere temperatures has so many problems we cannot list them all here. The best description of the problems is Andrew Montford’s authoritative The Hockey Stick Illusion (Montford, 2010). From a scientific and statistical point of view (the study contained many statistical errors), the best critiques are by Steve McIntyre and Ross McKitrick (McIntyre & McKitrick, 2003) and (McIntyre & McKitrick, 2005). For a fairly complete list of criticisms of the hockey stick, the best source is Mark Steyn’s book, A Disgrace to the Profession (Steyn, 2015). Finally the leaders of the scientific community have looked at the hockey stick and it’s generation and detailed the data and statistical problems in two reports, one from the National Research Council (National Research Council, 2006) and the other from the Congressional Wegman ad hoc committee (Wegman, Scott, & Said, 2010). However, the most damning criticism is from the U.N. IPCC AR4 report. The hockey stick was widely promoted in the third IPCC report (TAR) but dropped from AR4 due to the problems uncovered and documented. This is what Keith Briffa and other IPCC authors had to say about it in AR4:

“Some of the studies conducted since the Third Assessment Report (TAR) indicate greater multi-centennial Northern Hemisphere temperature variability over the last 1 kyr than was shown in the TAR, demonstrating a sensitivity to the particular proxies used, and the specific statistical methods of processing and/or scaling them to represent past temperatures. The additional variability shown in some new studies implies mainly cooler temperatures (predominantly in the 12th to 14th, 17th and 19th centuries), and only one new reconstruction suggests slightly warmer conditions in the 11th century, but well within the uncertainty range indicated in the TAR.” (IPCC, 2007b, p. 436)

Briffa toned this bit down a bit, but it is damning anyway. The statistical methods used to create the hocky stick were certainly flawed, as the National Research Council Report explains in plain English. Further the proxies were incompatible with one another and could not be combined with statistical techniques as explained in all the critiques of the hockey stick. The first critique of the hockey stick was by Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas and they explain clearly why it is a bad idea to combine proxies (Soon & Baliunas, 2003).

Among the authors of the Scientific American hit piece, we find Peter Frumhoff, a leader of the far-left Union of Concerned Scientists. As explained in my latest book, Politics and Climate Change: A History, Frumhoff was one of the organizers of the ExxonKnew campaign. He, with help from various Rockefeller foundations, the Tides Foundation, Greenpeace and other wealthy liberal foundations, got many state attorneys general (AGs) and ex-tobacco lawyers to attend a secret meeting at Harvard University in 2016. Frumhoff arranged to pay travel expenses for, at least some of the AGs. It was secret because the AGs did not want to get caught conspiring with tobacco lawyers in a plot to “get” ExxonMobil. The Vermont AG, Scot Kline, fought releasing the meeting agenda for over a year, but eventually had to turn it over in court (May, 2020c, p. 167).

Presenters at this secret meeting included Naomi Oreskes and Peter Frumhoff. All their efforts to “get” ExxonMobil failed miserably, there was nothing to sue ExxonMobil for. They talked Michael Bloomberg into funding and placing private lawyers, charged with going after fossil fuel companies, into the AG offices of several states. Bloomberg laundered the money for this through NYU law school, who the private lawyers reported to. These lawyers were called “Special Assistant Attorneys General” and were given some prosecutorial powers, but were not there to prosecute criminals, they were there to harass specific companies. It doesn’t get more corrupt than that, these are not nice people.

The Scientific American hit piece claims that temperatures have risen rapidly since 1979 and are the warmest in 1,500 years. If one digs into the hockey stick, and into temperature reconstructions in general, it is easy to see that no one can possibly say that, if they are honest. Since 1979 surface temperatures have been measured in the lower two meters of the atmosphere and in the upper meter of the oceans in thousands of places around the world with accurate thermometers. Then these measurements have been extensively processed to form records of global average temperature. The various records do not agree with one another, and all are criticized. Below, Figure 1 is a plot of the widely used HadCRUT5 temperature records for the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

Figure 1

The record claims that the Northern hemisphere surface is warming at a rate of 0.28°C/decade and the Southern Hemisphere is warming at a much lower rate of 0.11°C/decade. Given that CO2 is a well-mixed gas, this is hard to explain, if we assume CO2 is causing the warming. But Earth’s surface is unstable, we live on the surface and all our weather occurs there, the measurements may be a little wonky. Also, most of the land is in the Northern Hemisphere, which doesn’t help, elevation changes things, especially temperature. What about the satellite data? Below we see the Northern and Southern Hemisphere warming rates for the entire lower troposphere, not just the chaotic lower two meters:

Figure 2. The Southern Hemisphere anomalies have been moved to match the Northern Hemisphere from 1979 through 1990. The slopes are from 1979 through 2020, since 1978 and 2021 are partial years.

Hmmm, quite different. The Northern Hemisphere is still warming more rapidly than the Southern, but the difference is much less than in the HadCRUT5 record. Notice the Southern Hemisphere UAH satellite rate is nearly the same as the HadCRUT5 Southern Hemisphere rate. The anomaly is the extraordinary HadCRUT5 Northern Hemisphere rate. Is this real? Unlikely.

So, it appears we do not know the warming rate since 1979. Makes it pretty difficult to say the rate or the current temperature is unusual. What do we know about temperatures prior to 1979? We have no reliable satellite data prior to 1979, and all ocean surface temperatures are from ships. Prior to World War II, the ship temperatures are from buckets of water brought up to the deck with a rope. Those measurements must be very accurate! Not! (Kennedy, Rayner, Smith, Parker, & Saunby, 2011) and (Kennedy, Rayner, Smith, Parker, & Saunby, 2011b).

Prior to 1900, what do we have? Mostly proxies, tree rings, sediment, and ice cores. The tree rings are well dated, and we have one ring per year. Unfortunately, if you look into the hockey stick articles I list of above, you will see that tree rings are affected by the atmospheric CO2 concentration, which means modern tree rings are not comparable to ancient ones, oops! The other proxies are poorly dated (±50 years or so). How long has it been since 1979, 41 years? Further, most proxies are not annual, many represent several decades of temperatures. The temperature accuracy of the proxies is also suspect. In short, there is no way anyone can honestly compare today’s temperatures to the past 1,500 years. The data doesn’t exist. The following plot of temperature reconstructions is presented in AR5 (page 409):

Figure 3

Some are reconstructions of global temperatures (dark blue), some are land only (red and orange), some are land and sea extratropical (light blue), etc. The point is, climate is regional, the global average surface temperature we are trying to estimate in modern times, may or may not be a meaningful measure of climate change. We just don’t know. Given these three plots, how can anyone say modern warming is unusual with a straight face?

They also claim that Hurricane Sandy, which hit New York City in 2012, is due to human-caused climate change, which is pure speculation. Even Scientific American makes this point in an article trying to blame weather events on climate change, they write:

“Today, scientists still generally agree that it’s impossible to attribute any individual weather phenomenon solely to climate change. Storms, fires, droughts and other events are influenced by a variety of complex factors.” Scientific American

They remind me of Karl Popper’s anecdote that when a Marxist opened a newspaper every article was “proof” that Marx was correct (May, 2020c, p. 247). One of the ways to spot a pseudo-scientific hypothesis is that everything that happens is “proof” the hypothesis is correct (Popper, 1962). More on extreme weather and climate change can be found here.

They also blame fossil fuels for all our air pollution and the deaths that result from it, totally ignoring the huge health benefits that fossil fuels and modern technology have brought to the world as explained here.

They claim that climate change is already costing the United States and the world a lot of money, when leading economists have determined that the additional CO2 in the atmosphere and the recent warming have benefited the world by making it greener and by improving agricultural productivity (May, 2020c, pp. 119-121). We hear a lot about limiting warming to either 1.5° or 2.0°C, depending upon who is talking. But Nobel Prize winning Yale economist William Nordhaus states, in his Nobel Prize acceptance lecture, that the optimal economic pathway is to allow for four degrees of warming in 2135 should the IPCC worst case scenario occur (see slides 6 and 7 in Nordhaus’s pdf of his slides).

They also make the claim that the rate of sea-level rise has quadrupled since the industrial revolution. This is obvious nonsense, the measures of sea level change that exist today are not accurate enough to say that. Sea level is probably rising, but the rate moves up and down and varies from less than one millimeter per year to over three millimeters per year. Tide gauges are only accurate to several centimeters (±30 millimeters or so), so how could we possibly know if the rate had quadrupled? More on sea level “acceleration” from Anthony Watts here. Kip Hansen discusses the difficulties in measuring the rate of sea level rise here.

In any case, if sea level is rising at 3 mm/year, it amounts only to a foot in 100 years, which is hardly a disaster. One needs to remember that satellite sea-level measurements and ground-based measurements do not agree, and the difference is larger than the sea-level rise we are trying to measure!

That is the extent of the scientific arguments in the hit piece. Not much. But the article was not written to debate Koonin’s points, it was just an attempt to trash him personally and to give climate alarmists in social media something to link to.

The bibliography can be downloaded here.