Commentary

BEST Science Is Not a Press Release

Earlier this month, the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) research team blitzed the world with a very well-planned and coordinated press release touting its findings on global warming. Its peer-reviewed citations? None.

BEST is a group of non-climatologist scientists who have received more than $600,000 to reinvent the climate wheel, i.e., to take the existing surface-temperature histories that pretty much all climate scientists use and determine if things are heating up. They have written up their findings in four manuscripts that have been sent to peer-reviewed American Geophysical Union journals. All are in the very early stages of review. None has been published.

Why the press release? Why not wait for the peer-review process to legitimize the work?

Any way you look at it, the BEST team has poisoned the peer-review process.”

Was it designed to influence public opinion before the next United Nations climate conference in South Africa in a month? It certainly got coverage, landing BEST in the Economist, the online versions of the New York Times and the Washington Post and myriad other venues. The bottom line in most of the accounts: Climate change skeptics can all go away now; global warming is real.

I know most of the people who write these stories, and they are not stupid. They also know that this “news” — that the surface temperature is indeed higher than it was — is about as shocking as an astounded revelation that the sun likely will rise tomorrow.

In their paper on urban heat islands, the BEST scientists find that cities warm less than the countryside. In a world where science is not done by press release, such a finding — of a sort of “urban cooling” — would generate vigorous commentary opposing publication and requiring clarification. The chances of its publication in an honestly brokered review would be very small.

Instead, the authors chose to release their findings, confident that all, including the urban-cooling paper, will be published. The Oct. 20 release states that the four papers “will form part of the literature for the next IPCC report on climate change.” The IPCC, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is under extreme pressure to stop using non-peer-reviewed science, as it did in its last report, in 2007. The next one is being assembled.

Any way you look at it, the BEST team has poisoned the peer-review process. Because it press-released its science, everyone with a dog in this hunt (and there are lots of dogs) is doing very public peer review.

Thanks to BEST’s press release, publishing the urban-cooling paper will only generate catcalls of “pal review” versus peer review. Rejecting the manuscript likely will incite online mobs calling for the resignation or firing of the editor. Similar unruly behavior came to light in the Climategate emails over a decision by Geophysical Research Letters, an American Geophysical Union journal, to publish one of my papers.

Finally, does all this have anything to do with the role of carbon dioxide in planetary warming? If you read the online and op-ed chatter, yes. In reality, no. The BEST team finds about three-quarters of a degree Celsius of land surface warming before 1940, a pause to 1975 and then another rise of the same amount through the present. (If these numbers seem high, it is because they are for the 30 percent of the Earth that is land; ocean temperature changes are much less.)

Clearly, there are two warmings of the same size, but only the latter one could be caused by carbon dioxide, as emissions before 1940 were tiny compared to what they have been since 1975. All the team found is that the climate can warm up on its own as much as it can from carbon dioxide, something that has been discussed for at least three decades.

The real problem in climate change is not whether there is global warming, but how sensitive surface temperatures are to carbon dioxide. An intriguing body of independent argument is emerging indicating that it may have been guessed too high, so that future warming is likely to be muted.

So why did the Berkeley team do science by press release? Given that there was nothing scientifically revolutionary in its quotidian analysis, and given that it had to know this, I’ll hypothesize the reason was to influence November’s international climate change conference in Durban, South Africa. I sense a Freedom of Information Act request coming on.

Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute. His latest book is Climate Coup: Global Warming’s Invasion of Our Government and Our Lives (Cato Institute, 2011).