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Sunday July 3rd 2011

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BBC asks CRU’s Phil Jones the climate version of “When did you stop beating your wife.”

The general meltdown of the media on the climate story continues with the BBC’s “interview” of Dr. Phil Jones, the climate scientist at the center of the hacked e-mail scandal.

Many of the question were spoon-fed from the anti-science crowd:  “The BBC’s environment analyst Roger Harrabin put questions to Professor Jones, including several gathered from climate sceptics.”

The interview reveals Jones is not terribly adept at answering questions, particularly the inane trick-questions from the disinformers.  Like many climate scientists, he issues very carefully worded statements in his own area of expertise and isn’t anywhere near as familiar as he should be on the literature outside of his expertise.  Of course, even the most careful wording can’t stop you from being mugged by the Daily Mail.

The interview is equally revealing of the BBC reporter, who is almost shilling for the disinformers here, asking some questions that go far beyond merely uninformed.  I’m so glad someone else thought that “several of the [BBC] questions were geared to get the answers the interviewer wanted to get, on the order of “do you still beat your wife’.”

This interview just about guarantees scientists and others will hear these questions again.  So let’s try to understand what’s the underlying purpose of some of these questions and look at some potentially clearer answers:

A – Do you agree that according to the global temperature record used by the IPCC, the rates of global warming from 1860-1880, 1910-1940 and 1975-1998 were identical?

Presumably this question is meant to suggest that the earlier warming couldn’t have been due to GHGs, therefore casting doubt on whether the recent warming was due to GHGs.  But in fact, as Jones explains, the first period is short and the data is more uncertain.  Surprisingly, Jones doesn’t seem to know that the warming in the second period is well explained in the literature by known forcings and shown in the models.  I’ll do a separate post on this because it just keeps cropping up.

Jones does point out “the trend over the period 1975 to 2009″ is 0.16°C per decade and is statistically significant.  But that doesn’t stop Harrabin from asking:

B – Do you agree that from 1995 to the present there has been no statistically-significant global warming

What Jones should have said is “a wealth of scientific observations makes clear that warming in recent decades is unequivocal, climate is the long-term trend, and that, as I’ve said, the trend since 1975 is 0.16°C per decade and is statistically significant.  The period since 1995 is really too short for statistical significance, but has seen continued warming.”

Here’s what RealClimate says about Jones’ answer, noting first, as many have, that the Daily Mail utterly misrepresented Jones:

What Jones actually said is that, while the globe has nominally warmed since 1995, it is difficult to establish the statistical significance of that warming given the short nature of the time interval (1995-present) involved. The warming trend consequently doesn’t quite achieve statistical significance. But it is extremely difficult to establish a statistically significant trend over a time interval as short as 15 years–a point we have made countless times at RealClimate. It is also worth noting that the CRU record indicates slightly less warming than other global temperature estimates such as the GISS record.

Even the Met Office posted an analysis showing the CRU record, which basically ignores the Arctic (where recent warming has been the greatest), lowballs the actual temperature trend.

Then the BBC’s Harribin asks a question that borders on the kind of inane pestering that have made the anti-science disinformers so successful in their quest to throw climate scientists off balance:

C – Do you agree that from January 2002 to the present there has been statistically significant global cooling?

What Jones should have said is “a wealth of scientific observations makes clear that warming in recent decades is unequivocal, climate is the long-term trend, and, as I’ve said, the trend since 1975 is 0.16°C per decade and is statistically significant.  The period since 1995 is barely long enough to achieve statistical significance, so obviously the period since 2002 isn’t long enough.  What is the point of this question?  Other temperature databases, including NASA’s and NOAA’s find that 2005 was the hottest year on record, but in any case, CRU, NASA, NOAA, and WMO find the 2000s were the hottest decade on record, and as climatologist Ken Caldeira has said “To talk about global cooling at the end of the hottest decade the planet has experienced in many thousands of years is ridiculous”.”

As I discussed yesterday at length, Jones might also have added, if he were more familiar with the scientific literature from 2009, that when you look at where 90% of the human-caused warming was expected to go — the oceans — you find steady warming since 2002.

D – Do you agree that natural influences could have contributed significantly to the global warming observed from 1975-1998, and, if so, please could you specify each natural influence and express its radiative forcing over the period in Watts per square metre.

Here Jones gave a somewhat better answer, even though “This area is slightly outside my area of expertise”:

When considering changes over this period we need to consider all possible factors (so human and natural influences as well as natural internal variability of the climate system). Natural influences (from volcanoes and the Sun) over this period could have contributed to the change over this period.  Volcanic influences from the two large eruptions (El Chichon in 1982 and Pinatubo in 1991) would exert a negative influence. Solar influence was about flat over this period. Combining only these two natural influences, therefore, we might have expected some cooling over this period.

Bingo!

NASA scientist Gavin Schmidt put it more clearly when asked, “What percentage of global warming is due to human causes vs. natural causes?”  Since we would have expected cooling, and natural variability is only in the range of 0.1°C, “so given the warming of ~0.5 deg C, I’d say somewhere between 80 to 120% of the warming” is due to human causes.

E – How confident are you that warming has taken place and that humans are mainly responsible?

Here Jones gave a clear answer, “I’m 100% confident that the climate has warmed. As to the second question, I would go along with IPCC Chapter 9 — there’s evidence that most of the warming since the 1950s is due to human activity.”

Let’s jump to:

G – There is a debate over whether the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) was global or not. If it were to be conclusively shown that it was a global phenomenon, would you accept that this would undermine the premise that mean surface atmospheric temperatures during the latter part of the 20th Century were unprecedented?

Three dubious premises underly this question.  First, you have to enter the fantasy world where it is “conclusively shown” that the MWP was a global phenomenon.  We already have major studies concluding it was not warm in the Arctic (see Human-caused Arctic warming overtakes 2,000 years of natural cooling, “seminal” study finds and figure below).  And plenty of other analyses showing that it did not extend over many large regions of the planet.  It appears the tropical Pacific was actually on the cool side.  So those studies would all have to be overturned for this question to make any sense.

figure

Second, even if it were global, that still wouldn’t prove it was warmer than today.  The best recent reconstruction said that it was not (see “Sorry deniers, hockey stick gets longer, stronger: Earth hotter now than in past 2,000 years“).  As Jones himself notes, “On the other hand, if the MWP was global, but was less warm that today, then current warmth would be unprecedented.”  Duh!

Third, even if were were global (which studies say it was not) and warmer than today (which studies say it was not), that still would not mean the warming was random or unexplained!   The scientific literature can explain a large fraction of this warming by solar and volcanic forcings.  I will do another post on this.

As RealClimate notes of Jones’ statements about the MWP:

These are statements with which we entirely agree, and they are moreover fully consistent with the conclusions of the most recent IPCC report, and the numerous peer-reviewed publications on this issue since. Those conclusions are that recent Northern Hemisphere warming is likely unprecedented in at least a millennium (at least 1300 years, in fact), and that evidence in the Southern Hemisphere is currently too sparse for confident conclusions. Mann et al in fact drew those same conclusions in their most recent work on this problem (PNAS, 2008)….

Update 2/16/10. Phil Jones has confirmed to us that our interpretations of his comments in the BBC interview are indeed the correct ones, and that he agrees with the statements in our piece above. He and his CRU colleagues have also put up an initial response to some of the false allegations in the Daily Mail piece.

The “interview” continues:

H – If you agree that there were similar periods of warming since 1850 to the current period, and that the MWP is under debate, what factors convince you that recent warming has been largely man-made?

From watching all those courtroom dramas, I know that at this point the attorney jumps up to say, “I object, asked and answered” or “badgering the witness” or “you look pretty hot, your honor” — oh, sorry, that last one is only for Boston Legal or maybe Ally McBeal or maybe L.A. Law.

Even the patient-to-a-fault Jones, replied, “The fact that we can’t explain the warming from the 1950s by solar and volcanic forcing – see my answer to your question D.”

Now the BBC reporter turns into some sort of robot who has been programmed by the anti-science crowd and can do no thinking for himself, as the very next question is:

I – Would it be reasonable looking at the same scientific evidence to take the view that recent warming is not predominantly manmade?

Jones responds to this witness-badgering, “No – see again my answer to D.”

Let me jump to the question that may be the most disturbing:

N – When scientists say “the debate on climate change is over”, what exactly do they mean – and what don’t they mean?

When did you stop beating your wife, Dr. Jones?  Well, the debate on whether we are warming the planet should be pretty much over, since the warming is unequivocal, and the debate on whether doing nothing to get off our current emissions path risks catastrophe should be over — but they aren’t, thanks to the disinformers and the stenographers in the status quo media.

It’s stunning that any serious journalist would ask this question.  If Roger Harrabin knows of a scientist who uttered that precise statement in quotes — which is exceedingly unlikely — then obviously the reporter should ask that scientist what he or she meant.  If the reporter doesn’t know of a scientist who uttered this statement, then the reporter obviously shouldn’t ask the question in the first place.

Jones should have said, “You cannot be serious.”  I guess the British stiff-upper-lip version of that is: “It would be supposition on my behalf to know whether all scientists who say the debate is over are saying that for the same reason. I don’t believe the vast majority of climate scientists think this.  This is not my view. There is still much that needs to be undertaken to reduce uncertainties, not just for the future, but for the instrumental (and especially the palaeoclimatic) past as well.”

The point Jones didn’t make is that the leading scientific bodies all understand that uncertainties do not justify inaction and right now, most of the uncertainties concern whether unrestricted emissions of greenhouse gases will have far worse impacts than the IPCC projected.

Gather.com writes of the interview:

The article is interesting in the sense that several of the questions were geared to get the answers the interviewer wanted to get, on the order of “do you still beat your wife.” He admits that some of the questions were “gathered from climate sceptics,” which explains why some of the questions are faulty. Whether the interviewer did this intentionally, or due to lack of understanding of the science, or as an unwilling lackey for the professional denialist crowd is unknown.

I do think the interview was useful from the perspective of serving as a warning to any scientist about the media:  If the BBC is willing to undermine its own reputation by serving up this spoon-fed crap, any major media outlet might.

This article was originally posted on Climate Progress