Nature Climate Change | Climate Feedback

The real holes in climate science

When I started working last month on a news feature about gaps in climate science I was expecting a tough reporting job. Too fresh, so I thought, were the scars the field and many leading scientists had received from the hacking affair at the Climate Research Unit (CRU) in Norwich to readily discuss with a reporter the ‘dirty laundry’ (my phrase) of climate science.

My concerns proved unfounded. Some of the scientists I interviewed for the piece did complain about the “insane” climate of suspicion they are working in, and not only since the CRU incident rocked the field. But none of them had the slightest reservation about openly speaking with me at length about gaps and uncertainties in their respective fields of inquiry.

As one would expect, there are indeed many gaps to be filled in this still rather young discipline of research. My feature describes unressolved problems in four specific areas – regional climate prediction, precipitation changes, aerosols, and tree ring-based temperature reconstructions. None of the considerable uncertainties related with these things have been kept secret by any means; but all four have led, and continue to do so, to enduring misconceptions and false claims which deserve better clarification and greater open discussion in the public and policy spheres. I have also taken a closer look at some of the favourite ‘myths’ that keep circulating among the climate sceptics community and beyond, such as that global warming stopped ten years ago.

An accompanying editorial, drawing upon sociological insight, argues that the climate-research community should use a diverse set of voices, from different backgrounds, when communicating with policy-makers and the public, and that scientists should be careful not to disparage those on the other side of the debate.

“The messenger,” the editorial concludes, “matters perhaps just as much as the message.”

Quirin Schiermeier


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    Bishop Hill said:

    I agree that climate scientists should “use a diverse set of voices, from different backgrounds, when communicating with policy-makers and the public”. It is therefore a pity that you chose to interview so many members of the Hockey Team in your article.

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    david elder said:

    I am not exactly a total global warming sceptic and would support sensible emission reductions on a precautionary basis, a nuanced position I think. But aspects of this piece puzzle me. I do commend it for confronting some problems with climate science, and not just parroting that the science is settled. But if for example global temperature is still rising in recent years as claimed here, why did Trenberth express the contrary view in the Climategate emails? I do not know if the recent pause in warming will last, but a certain level of scepticism at this point would seem defensible. If as claimed the Medieval Warm Period was not as warm as if not warmer than today, how did the Vikings farm in Greenland then, while grapes grew in the north of England? McIntyre’s critique of the hockey stick graph of Mann et al is mentioned, but not Wegman’s 2006 report with its endorsement of McIntyre’s critique. Climategate attempts to ‘hide the decline’ are rather downplayed – compare them with McIntyre’s scrutiny of a decline excision which seems particularly hard to defend (in Climate Audit piece ‘IPCC and the “trick”’). One can sympathise over the pressures that pro-AGW climate researchers now experience; but for years sceptics have had to put up with the label ‘denialist’ with its repulsive holocaust-denial connotations; with indiscriminate allegations of payoffs by oil companies; with claims of moral equivalence with tobacco companies; and with complicity in some great right-wing war on science. They received scant sympathy for any of this from Nature or other leading scientific journals. It looks like advocacy science.

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    Turboblocke said:

    Why the obsession with the MBH98 Hockey Stick? IIUC the sceptics’ position is that it was a false positive. I’m not going to argue whether that’s right or not as I don’t know enough about that field. However, if you get a false positive, surely it makes sense to do the test again with a different method to see if that gives a different result? Well, not surprisingly, other tests have been done and they show a hockey stick too.