February 13, 2015 5:42PM

You Ought to Have a Look: Global Temperatures and Climate Skeptics

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger. While this section features all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic. Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.


Highlights from the various and sundry stories from across the web this week:

Over the weekend, a brouhaha erupted over the trustworthiness of the various compilations of the earth’s surface temperature history for the past century or so. This is a simmering cauldron that sporadically boils over with claims of pernicious data manipulation. This week’s eruption began with an article by Christopher Booker in the United Kingdom’s Telegraph headlined “Climategate, the Sequel: How We Are STILL Being Tricked with Flawed Data on Global Warming.” It went from local to global when it was featured prominently and for several days on the Drudge Report.

We immediately sought to temper those claims—in many cases, there are good reasons why the “raw” temperature observations are not the best representation of a location’s (natural) climate. These involve such issues as station moves, instrument changes, inconsistent observing times, and erroneous readings, as well as changes to the microclimate around the thermometer (e.g., fading paint, encroaching trees, spreading suburbia, etc.). To compile a reliable temperature record that best represents how the climate is changing, you need  to  mitigate as many of these confounding effects as much as possible. (Some of those effects are harder to remove than others.) Basically, the “raw” data need to be “adjusted.”

Concerns about the appropriateness of the methodology as well as the accuracy of the adjusted data is at the root of the simmering controversy.

It turns out that the resulting temperature histories are much more robust (especially at the global level) than many people realize.

Over at Judy Curry’s blog Climate Etc., Robert Rohde, Zeke Hausfather, and Steve Mosher—independent folks who questioned the standing temperature compilations and sought an independent and better methodology—describe the results of their efforts at developing appropriate adjustment methods as well as comparing their work to others (and to the raw data). Surprisingly (even to themselves), they found that despite all the various manners in which “raw” data have been “adjusted,” on a global scale, the earth’s temperature history is largely robust, although, certainly, on smaller scales, differences do exist. They conclude:

In summary, it is possible to look through 40,000 stations and select those that the algorithm has warmed; and, it’s possible to ignore those that the algorithm has cooled. As the spatial maps show it is also possible to select entire continents where the algorithm has warmed the record; and, it’s possible to focus on other continents were the opposite is the case. Globally however, the effect of adjustments is minor. It’s minor because on average the biases that require adjustments mostly cancel each other out.

If you’re interested, you ought to have a look. You’ll probably learn a thing or two.

Another piece that caught our attention this week was a study published in the journal Environmental Communications that looked at the reasons behind why some people are climate “skeptics.”  The author, University of Nottingham’s Paul Matthews, reviewed several blog threads in which commenters explained how they came to hold their skeptical point of view. Of the 154 people identified as “skeptics,” Matthews made the following observations:

Academic and scientific qualifications are generally high, with 26% reporting a Ph.D. and an additional 46% having a degree of some form. The actual percentages may be higher than this if some individuals did not explicitly mention their qualifications, or lower if some exaggerated theirs. Professional backgrounds are predominantly in technical or engineering fields.

  • A broad range of views are expressed, ranging from a “lukewarm” position, that warming will be modest and not a serious problem (around 15–20%) to a much stronger view that climate change is a scam or a fraud (only around 10%).
  • A significant proportion (about 27%) indicates that they were converted to climate skepticism from a previous position of acceptance of climate change.
  • Motives for skepticism include the view that claims regarding climate change are often overstated, which in some cases is associated with personal experience of previous exaggerated scares. Blogs that aim to promote climate science can backfire, as they can be seen as overconfident or lacking in objectivity, leading to a potential loss of trust. The main concern of this community of skeptics is with the quality of the science, focusing on issues such as statistics, data handling, and reliance on models, with the hockey stick picture acting as the icon for the dispute. The climategate incident was not a major opinion-forming factor for this group, perhaps because they had formed their opinions before this took place.
  • Politics is a significant factor, either through the political views of the individual (which typically lean more toward libertarianism than conservatism) or through the view that those who express concern over climate change may be politically motivated.

Matthews added this insight concerning the heavy-handed tactics of environmental alarmists:

The ironic point that increasingly dire messaging about climate change may encourage skepticism is supported by the work of Feinberg and Willer (2011), and also by Bashir et al. (2013), who found that environmental messages can backfire among those who have a negative view of activists. Similarly, work by Hobson and Niemeyer (2013) found that it is difficult to dispel climate skepticism by subjecting skeptical volunteers to “climate scenarios,” and that some became more dogmatic in their skepticism when treated in this way. These results are consistent with the comments studied here.

Which leads us to a piece in the Washington Post’s new Energy and Environment section by “curator” Chris Mooney (of “Republican War on Science” fame).

Mooney’s piece was titled “Want to Get Conservatives to Save Energy? Stop the Environmentalist Preaching” and concluded--well, it’s pretty obvious from the headline what he concluded. And judging from the content of the initial three weeks' worth of articles, the Post’s new Energy and Environment section ought to take a good look in the mirror. It’s preachy.