Post-IPCC denial and outrage

I find myself shaking my head when I read that Exxon-Mobil just announced an all-time record profit of US$39.5 billion for 2006. And then, after the release of the IPCC report on Friday, the Exxon-Mobil-funded think tanks come out denying climate change (it should be noted that Exxon-Mobil’s contributions to these groups would appear to amount to less than a rounding error in their financial statements). Below are a couple of post-IPCC spin-offs: a critique of the Fraser critique by Real Climate; and a call for an extraordinary profits tax on oil companies from Robert Reich.

First, Real Climate demolishes the Fraser anti-IPCC report:

Fraser Institute fires off a damp squib

While most of the world’s climate scientists were following the IPCC fest last week, a few contrarians left out in the cold were trying to to organize their own party.

An unofficial, “Independent Summary for Policymakers” (ISPM) of the IPCC Fourth Assessment report has been delivered by the Fraser Institute. It’s a long, imposing-looking document, resembling, come to think of it, the formatting of the real Summary for Policymakers (SPM) document that was released on Friday after final negotiations of the IPCC in Paris last week. The Fraser Institute has assembled an awsome team of 10 authors, including such RC favorites as tilter-against-windmills-and-hockey-sticks Ross McKitrick, and other luminaries such as William Kininmonth, MSc, M.Admin — whose most recent paper is “Don’t be Gored into Going Along” in the Oct-Nov issue of Power Engineer. To be fair, he did publish a paper on weather forecasting, back in 1973. According to the press release, the London kickoff event will be graced by the presence of “noted environmentalist” David Bellamy. It’s true he’s “noted,” but what he’s noted for is his blatant fabrication of numbers purporting to show that the world’s glaciers are advancing rather retreating, as reported here.

Why go to all the trouble of producing an “independent” summary? The authors illuminate us with this wisdom regarding the official Summary for Policymakers: “A further problem is that the Summary for Policy Makers attached to the IPCC Report is produced, not by the scientific writers and reviewers, but by a process of negotiation among unnamed bureaucratic delegates from sponsoring governments.” This statement (charitably) shows that the Fraser Institute authors are profoundly ignorant of the IPCC process. In fact, the actual authors of the official SPM are virtually all scientists, and are publically acknowleged. Moreover, the lead authors of the individual chapters are represented in the writing process leading to the SPM, and their job is to defend the basic science in their chapters. As lead author Gerald Meehl remarked to one of us on his way to Paris: “Scientists have to be ok, they have the last check. If they think the science is not represented, then they can send it back to the breakout groups. ”

A common accusation at the time of the Third Assessment Report was that the SPM didn’t reflect the science in the rest of the report. A special National Academy panel was convened at the request of President GW Bush, to consider this and other issues. The Panel found no significant disconnect between the SPM and the body of the report. The procedure followed this time is not in essence any different from that which has been used for previous IPCC reports.

One of the strangest sections of the Fraser Institute report is the one in which the authors attempt to throw dirt on the general concept of radiative forcing. Radiative forcing is nothing more than an application of the principle of conservation of energy, looking at the way a greenhouse gas alters the energy balance of a planet. The use of energy conservation arguments of this type has been standard practice in physics at least since the time of Fourier. We have heard certain vice presidents dismiss “Energy Conservation” as merely a matter of personal virtue, but we have never before heard people who purport to be scientists write off the whole utility of “Conservation of Energy.” From what is written in the Fraser report, it is not even clear that the authors understand the first thing about how radiative transfer calculations are done. They criticize the radiative forcing concept because it “fails to take into account the lifetime of greenhouse gases” — as if we really needed to know anything more about CO2 in this regard than that it stays around for centuries to millennia. They say that radiative forcing “is computed by assuming a linear relationship between certain climatic forcing agents and particular averages of temperature data.” Nonsense. It is computed using detailed calculations of absorption and emission of infrared radiation, based on laboratory measurements carried out with exquisite accuracy, and meticulously checked against real atmospheric observations.

Hockey-stick bashing and solar-explains-all advocacy are favorite activities of the denialist camp, so it is no surprise to see both themes amply represented in the Fraser Institute report. In neither case does the Fraser report break new ground in bad behavior. It’s just more of the same old same old. On climate of the past millennium, the Fraser report misrepresents the recent National Research Council report , which concluded quite the opposite of what the Fraser report claims it concluded: The National Research Council, like the official SPM, affirms that recent warming really does appear anomalous in light of the past millennium. The Fraser report obscures this point by cleansing the recent period of warming from their graphs. The discussion of solar variability consists of a lot of vague talk about unexplored possibilities, while skirting the basic problem with solar variability as an explanation of recent warming: There is no observed trend in solar activity of a type that could explain recent warming, and if the problem were an unobserved trend in solar ultraviolet, it would make the stratosphere (where UV is absorbed by ozone) trend warmer relative to a constant-solar baseline. In reality, the stratosphere is cooling strongly, and at about the rate the models predict.

The basic approach taken by the Fraser Institute Report is to fling a lot of mud at the models and hope that at least some of it sticks. Of course, if one looks at enough details one is bound to find some areas where there is a mismatch between models and reality. Modellers do this all the time, as a way of improving the representation of physical processes. However, to highlight a few shortcomings without asking what their implications might be for climate sensitivity, or whether the mismatch might be due to data problems rather than model problems (as in the case of tropical lapse rate), gives a distorted picture of the state of the art. An examination of the model shortcomings in the light of the vast range of important things they get right leaves the fundamental premise of the cause of warming unchallenged, and to see why, one needs to turn to a balanced assessment of the science such as represented in the full IPCC report.

The Fraser Institute authors also raise the curious objection that models have not been “formally proven” to be suitable for predicting the future. We are not sure what it would mean to “formally prove” such a thing (Kurt Gödel, are you listening?), but the specific objection raised in the Fraser report makes no sense: the authors suggest that the number of tunable parameters in models is so great that it may exceed the degrees of freedom in the data being “fit.” In reality, there are at most a dozen or two parameters that modellers touch, most of these are constrained to certain limits by data, and there are physical limitations to what one can do to the output by changing such parameters. In contrast, adding up time series of temperature and precipitation and pressure as a function of latitude and longitude, seasonal cycles, surface radiation balance, ocean heat storage, ENSO events, past climates, and vertical structure, there are literally thousands of observational constraints involved in the evaluation of model behavior.

There are so many bizarre statements in the Fraser Institute report that some of us think that spotting them could serve as a good final exam in an elementary course on climate change. Take your pick. The report states that “The IPCC gives limited consideration to aerosols …” whereas aerosols have been a key part of the scenarios since the Second Assessment Report, were the key to explaining the interrupted mid-century warming, and cannot in any way be mangled so as to spuriously give the warming of the past decades. The ISPM regales us with tales of natural global warming in the distant past, without pointing out that these happened over millions of years, had often massive consequences nonetheless, and were linked to processes like continental drift which are unlikely to be part of the explanation of the recent warming. The Fraser report describes the climate changes of the past century as “minor” (a value-laden and subjective term if ever there was one), failing to realize that climate change so far has been the fire alarm, not the fire. The climate of 2100 is not forecast to be mild.

We could go on, but why bother? We’ll leave off with a quote. “most places have observed slight increases in rain and/or snow cover”

Actually, consulting the draft of Chapter 4, snow cover kinda looks likes it’s been decreasing, not increasing. But take a look at the artful use of “and/or”. The sentence is not “formally” wrong. Superb! When you hear “ISPM,” just think “Incorrect Summary for Policymakers.”

Note: In the interests of timeliness, this commentary has been based on a January 8 draft of the “ISPM” which was leaked to us. If the final released version differs substantively from what we have seen so far, the changes (for better or worse) will be discussed in the comments.

And here’s Reich:


A Windfall Profits Tax on Oil Companies to Finance R&D in Non-Fossil Based Energy

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that global warming is “unequivocal” and that human activity is the main driver. The United States, with five percent of the world’s population, contributes about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, far more than other country. But you can forget a carbon tax any time soon. Dems don’t have the intestinal fortitude to propose it.

That leaves the only plausible policy right now the development of non-fossil based fuels. Yet there’s no money in the public kitty for this or much else. Bush’s new budget allows only a pittance for new research in solar, biomass, wind, and other alternatives.

So where to get the money? From the revenues we’ve been handing oil companies. Exxon Mobil just reported an annual profit of $39.5 billion for 2006, its second consecutive record and the largest profit reported by any American company in history. Other oil companies are also swimming in cash. Oil prices are rebounding now that cold weather has returned to most of the nation.

The Dems should propose a temporary windfall profits tax on oil companies (temporary, that is, until the oil company’s current oil earnings boom falls back to a normal range), the proceeds of which go into a fund to finance R&D in non-fossil based fuels. Market fundamentalists who holler that oil companies should be allowed to reinvest their profits in new oil exploration aren’t paying attention to the environmental costs. But the windfall tax should be designed so that, to the extent oil companies do wish to invest in non-fossil based fuels, such profits are exempt.

One comment

  • Thank you for posting these pieces and in particular for including this explanation from RealClimate:

    The Panel found no significant disconnect between the SPM and the body of the report. The procedure followed this time is not in essence any different from that which has been used for previous IPCC reports.

    and this:

    In fact, the actual authors of the official SPM are virtually all scientists, and are publicly acknowledged. Moreover, the lead authors of the individual chapters are represented in the writing process leading to the SPM, and their job is to defend the basic science in their chapters.

    as I have noted how the Fraser Institute’s alternative view of reality has spread around many blogs this weekend and I didn’t know where to go to find the truth. Thankyou!

    Reich’s proposal is spot on 🙂

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