McKitrick tries and fails to move the goalposts on climate action

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In a new Financial Post op-ed (“The Global Warming Hiatus?”), Ross McKitrick continues to try to move the goalposts on climate action with a misleading argument about global climate models, while harping on the tired old “warming pause” meme. In fact, global climate models work well for the purpose they were designed for: evaluating temperatures over long timescales. We already have all the information we need to know that action now is the cheapest and most effective way to avert dangerous climate change.

[Revised June 20]

The following is a guest post by Climate Nexus (text in PDF here):

McKitrick tries and fails to move the goalposts

on climate action

In a June 16 Financial Post op-ed (“The Global Warming Hiatus?”), Ross McKitrick continues to try to move the goalposts for climate action, while harping on the tired old “warming pause” meme. It’s been thoroughly established that short-term variation is not significant in the context of more than a century of warming. It’s also been clearly shown that it makes no sense to view warming solely in terms of surface temperatures, when heat is being stored in the ocean. McKitrick attempts to promote the “pause” while dodging these troublesome facts by asserting that validating climate model predictions is what’s really important. In line with the new mantra of the delayers, he suggests we should just wait and see what happens.

In fact, global climate models work well for the purpose they were designed for: evaluating temperatures over long timescales. We already have all the information we need to know that action now is the cheapest and most effective way to avert dangerous climate change.

Climate models are designed to work over the long term. And over the long term, scientists stand by the models’ projections. Short-term variations can be introduced because the models cannot predict the timing of significant climate factors like El Niño events or volcanic eruptions, although they can correctly model those events if the timing is established. The latest IPCC report concluded that short-term discrepancies did not invalidate models’ usefulness for establishing ranges of future impacts. Others have even found that observed temperature increases may be underreported, greatly reducing the significance of any recent discrepancy.

Climate models project a range of possible temperatures, not one precise temperature. The recent variations in global average temperature remain within the expected range of possible conditions. But a reader wouldn’t know this from viewing the misleading graph accompanying McKitrick’s op-ed. Instead of a range, his graph presents the average path from an ensemble of model results, misleadingly giving the impression that model results can be used to simulate and project year-by-year variations. McKitrick even claims “the black line can be described as the mainstream thinking of contemporary climate science,” a preposterous statement given that official IPCC graphics often present the projected shift in the range that is expected without even including a central trend line.

We have plenty of information now, enough to know we should take action. McKitrick states that there is a “high probability” of information emerging in the next few years that strongly affects long-term climate projections. He doesn’t state what his confident prediction is based on, and it’s difficult to imagine what it might be. Climate science is improving incrementally, but the basics have been established for a hundred years and aren’t likely to suddenly change. Emissions are causing warming. Too much warming and we’re in trouble. Any real game-changing discoveries are much more likely to alter projections for the worse, a fact that the IPCC has acknowledged.

Action is cheap and practical. The IPCC has identified many “low hanging fruits” of climate mitigation, especially through energy efficiency and the rapidly plummeting price of renewable energy technologies. Much of the needed investment could come simply from shifting resources over from fossil fuels, rather than committing additional resources.

Inaction is costly. McKitrick flat-out states that “there is no downside to awaiting this information” while waiting for “crucial facts” could prevent countries from making unspecified “costly mistakes.” This is just wrong: the IPCC, the U.S. National Climate Assessment, and many other exhaustive reports have confirmed that waiting only increases the cost of eventual mitigation, as well as committing us to costly climate impacts. The potential costs of modernizing our energy system (which we would need to do anyway and which carries many co-benefits) pale in comparison to the costs we would face in an unchecked warming scenario.

McKitrick is attempting to appear prudent with his “wait and see” mantra, but his approach fails the test of both science and common sense. His background also doesn’t lend him credibility – he has been openly adversarial to climate science for decades, and is associated with anti-science groups including the now-discredited Competitive Enterprise Institute, Heartland Institute, and Marshall Institute. These groups have opposed scientific research on all fronts, including disputing the connection between cigarettes and cancer. He’s far from a neutral observer and his arguments just don’t hold up.

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Earlier posts:

Setting the temperature record straight: The last 11,300 years explained

“The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars” — Now in paperback, highly recommended

Deep Climate investigation of denialist and “skeptic” attack on Hockey Stick temperature record

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4 Responses to McKitrick tries and fails to move the goalposts on climate action

  1. George Kapotto says:

    (Preaching to the choir but perhaps the following should be raised more frequently when McKitrick blats his foolishness…)

    Ross Mckitrick is a signatory to the Cornwall Alliance which among other things states:
    “We believe Earth and its ecosystems—created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence —are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory. Earth’s climate system is no exception. Recent global warming is one of many natural cycles of warming and cooling in geologic history.”

    The scientific method requires the proposal of a hypothesis with no prejudicial assumptions on the results. By being signatory to the Cornwall alliance, Mckitrick clearly voids his credentials as a scientist with regards to climate change.

    Call him out for what he is: a proselytizer. And people can take what he says on faith if they wish but should not confuse his sermons for science because they are not and cannot be taken as such by his own assertions.

  2. A problem with climate science communication is presenting this highly complex information for mass consumption. There’s a lot of room for political operatives and science tools to mess with the message.

    Behind the modeled curve of temperature versus time, is a lot of physics, math and statistics. Temperature is presented as an anomaly. This is the difference between temperature at at specific time minus an average temperature range. This range is, I think, either a 30 year average period or over say the twentieth century (NOAA tells us what anomaly is).

    Because climate modeling calculates the change in temperature (the anomaly or delta t), scientist like to plot delta t versus time to be mathematically correct. Climate models use differential equations along with statistical models. The differential in diffy Q is change.

    So if climate scientists would plot temperature versus time, by subtracting the model temperature (as a function of time) minus the period average temperature, the graph really shows temperature nicely rising, with occasional slowdowns (the curve slope levels out a bit).

    On the other hand if climate scientists would plot atmospheric heat, as they do ocean heat gain, it would be kind of scary. Heat is a function of differential temperature (like temp anomaly).

    In the case of heat, if the yearly average bar is below the periodic average (say over 30 years) then we see heat loss. If the yearly average heat bar is above the average we are seeing heat gain. We’ve been seeing heat gain since the 1970s, since all the yearly heat or temperature anomalies are above the average. Sometimes the bars are bigger some times about the same year to year. Either way we are gaining heat and that isn’t cool.

    Climate dot gov, a part of NOAA’s website shows all of this nicely:
    http://www.climate.gov/

    So to conclude, political action groups and many in journalism have been told to take advantage of interpretation to increase confusion. Too bad climate scientists and environmentalists never hired a rottweiler type political consultant like the other side did.

  3. Phil B. says:

    “Since the 1970s” – you mean, the 1970s where we had a abnormally cool period, which makes a great start for modern graphs?

    I have a simple question – what is the actual definition of a “short” and “long” timescale, and at what point will you start getting concerned about the climate models? If global surface temps continue declining through this decade as measured today, would a “pause” between 2000 and 2020 be sufficient to start doubting?

    And if you want to talk about moving the goalposts – why not mention how ridiculous it is to utilize current methods for reporting temperatures, and then come up with a raft of additional reasons why they can’t possibly be accurate when this supposed “pause” started to occur?

    • Rick - Climate Science Watch says:

      The term climate change refers to a change in average conditions over periods of 30 years or more.

      The recently published U.S. National Climate Assessment <http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/>, in Appendix 4: Frequently Asked Questions, has this, in response to the question of whether the globally averaged surface air temperature is still increasing:

      “Global temperatures are still rising. Climate change is defined as a change in the average conditions over periods of 30 years or more (see FAQ A). On these time scales, global temperature continues to increase. Over shorter time scales, natural variability (due to the effects of El Niño and La Niña events in the Pacific Ocean, for example, or volcanic eruptions or changes in energy from the sun) can reduce the rate of warming or even create a temporary reduction in average surface air temperature. These short-term variations in no way negate the reality of long-term warming. The most recent decade was the warmest since instrumental record keeping began around 1880.

      “From 1970 to 2010, for example, global temperature trends taken at five-year intervals show both decreases and sharp increases. The five-year period from 2005 to 2010, for ex- ample, included a period in which the sun’s output was at a low point, oceans took up more than average amounts of heat, and a series of small volcanoes exerted a cooling influence by adding small particles to the atmosphere. These natural factors are thought to have contributed to a recent slowdown in the rate of increase in average surface air temperature caused by the buildup of human-induced greenhouse gases. But while there has been a slowdown in the rate of increase, temperatures are still increasing.

      “In addition, satellite and ocean observations indicate that most of the increased energy in the Earth’s climate system from the increasing levels of heat-trapping gases has gone into the oceans. These observations indicate that the Earth- atmosphere climate system has continued to gain heat energy.

      “In the United States, there has been considerable decade-to- decade variability superimposed on the long-term warming trend. In most seasons and regions, the 1930s were relatively warm and the 1960s/1970s relatively cool. The most recent decade of the 2000s was the warmest on record throughout the United States and globally.”

      The authors of the FAQ Appendix include:
      Convening Lead Authors
      John Walsh, University of Alaska Fairbanks
      Donald Wuebbles, University of Illinois
      Lead Authors
      Katharine Hayhoe, Texas Tech University
      James Kossin, NOAA National Climatic Data Center
      Kenneth Kunkel, CICS-NC, North Carolina State Univ., NOAA National Climatic Data Center
      Graeme Stephens, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
      Peter Thorne, Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Center
      Russell Vose, NOAA National Climatic Data Center
      Michael Wehner, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
      Josh Willis, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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