Friday, November 13, 2009

John Mashey and Arthur Smith were right (and Eli wrong)

It is always tempting to jump to conclusions before RTFR, but in some case the conclusion is available before the report so Eli has a bit of an excuse. The APS has released the report that the Council decision was based on to members, and it is not all good.

The Committee was lead by Dan Kleppner, a very distinguished AMO guy (atomic and molecular physics). Two of the members were theoretical particle physicists, one was a surface physicist and one was a nuclear physicist. The person who may have made the difference is Robert K. Adair, one of the early signers of the OISM petition.

Adair's position certainly should have been no secret as can be gathered from a letter sent from the George Marshall Institute to President George W. Bush in 2002 which concluded,

We applaud your commitment to a science based policy. We also reiterate that the overshelming balance of evidence shows no appreciable warming trend attributable to carbon dioxide from human activity. The tell tale sign of a significant human influence on climate - a warming of the lower atmosphere- does not exist. Contrary to all computer model forecasts for global warming, neither satellites nor weather balloons can find any net warming trend in the lower atmosphere for over two decades.
The letter was signed by William O'Keefe, President of the Marshall Institute and was sent on behalf many of the usual suspects, Seitz, Jastrow, Baliunas, Happer, Chauncey Starr, Robert K. Adair, surprisingly to Eli, Sid Benson, Sherwood Idso, David Legates, Pat Michaels, Fred Singer, Edward Teller and a few others. The signature page is on a separate pdf.

Before we get to the bad news, it is worth thinking about why such a committee, with no members who had any professional experience in climate issues was chosen, and even if your accept the arrogance of physicists, why such an obvious champion of denialism was allowed to sit on the committee. Even if you accept that, then there should have been a counter balance. Perhaps there was, certainly the APS Council and the Committee owe the members an explanation of how this committee was chosen. OTEOP Adair had not signed the Austin Petition that set this all off.

The Committee relied on the IPCC WG 1 report and the NRC North Committee report on proxy reconstructions. Especially in the later case, the information was outdated, and there is no evidence that anyone on the Committee had any idea of how the field has moved since then. The quote the conclusion of the North report that
It can be said with a high level of confidence that global mean surface temperature was higher during the last few decades of the 20th century than during any comparable period during the preceding four centuries. This statement is justified by the consistency of the evidence from a wide variety of geographically diverse proxies.

Less confidence can be placed in large‐scale surface temperature reconstructions for the period from A.D. 900 to 1600. Presently available proxy evidence indicates that temperatures at many, but not all, individual locations were higher during the past 25 years than during any period of comparable length since A.D. 900. ”
Without being apparently aware of additional reconstructions that have appeared in the last four years strengthening both conclusions. The report is shockingly naive.

The Committee's bottom line was that the data and projections all point to further global warming if present emission trends continue the costs of which could be catastrophic. The Committee concluded that the proposed statement from the Austin Petition should be rejected. This was the decision of the Council.

The Committee did not recommend strengthening the APS statement on climate change as Eli had surmised, but rather recommended a significant weakening, no doubt influenced by Robert Adair. The state that the anthropic influence on climate has not been proven to be a fact, although there is strong evidence, and recommend inserting the word probably into the first sentence of the Policy Statement, changing it to
Emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are probably changing the atmosphere in ways that affect the Earth's climate.
but it gets worse. Referring to the second paragraph of the policy statement
The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring. If no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now.
The Committee writes
In the second paragraph, the first sentence states that the fact of climate warming is incontrovertible, which is true. However, by its context this is easily misread to mean that anthropogenic warming is incontrovertible. The only clue that there are uncertainties in the predictions for the global climate is the phrase “likely to occur” in the second paragraph. This hardly conveys the great uncertainties in analysis displayed in [WG1] PSB. The paragraph as a whole has an alarmist tone that belies the underlying uncertainties.
Eli is very unhappy.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

"Emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are probably changing the atmosphere in ways that affect the Earth's climate."

"Probably" does include "with 100% probability" so I guess technically, they got it right (though it is not particularly probable that that that is the interpretation they intended)

Steve Bloom said...

Link to the committee report?

From the statement on the APS site: "The committee also recommended that the current APS statement be allowed to stand, but it requested that the Society’s Panel on Public Affairs (POPA) examine the statement for possible improvements in clarity and tone. POPA regularly reviews all APS statements to ensure that they are relevant and up-to-date regarding new scientific findings."

It appears from this that the committee has nothing to do with this process, and that opening the statement up may yet be beneficial.

Also, oddly: "Dr. Kleppner’s committee reached its conclusion based upon a serious review of existing compilations of scientific research." So by definition they missed anything current.

Steve Bloom said...

Ah, well, POPA:

Robert Socolow is chair-elect, but Lawrence Krauss is on it as well. Krauss is out of Socolow's league, but what's known about the other members?

Joel said...


Yeah, I was a little disappointed to read the committee report. They clearly did not have very much personal knowledge on the topic. Hopefully, POPA will not take the recommendation regarding the first sentence. I am actually not in complete disagreement that the second paragraph could be spruced up a bit. I could support something like:

The evidence that global warming is occurring is incontrovertible. Furthermore, multiple lines of evidence have led the IPCC to conclude that it is very likely that most of the warming over the last half century is due to anthropogenic greenhouse gases and to project significant further warming in the 21st century under various scenarios of continued rising greenhouse gas emissions. If no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now.

Joel said...

Or, here is a slightly more physicsy version:

The evidence that global warming is occurring is incontrovertible. Furthermore, the basic radiative physics virtually guarantees that increases in atmospheric greenhouse gas levels must lead to warming. Multiple lines of evidence lead to the conclusion that the sensitivity of the climate system is such that this warming is likely to be quite large under various scenarios of continued rising greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, if no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now.

John Mashey said...

re: POPA

Chair Elect Socolow is pretty clear.

Vice-Chair Venkatesh Narayanamurti (i.e., Chair after Socolow), and took over Holdren's place @ Harvard): says
"The United States must change the way it produces and uses energy by shifting away
from its dependence on imported oil and coal-fired electricity and by increasing the
efficiency with which energy is extracted/captured, converted, and utilized if it is to meet
the urgent challenges facing the energy system, of which climate change and energy
security are the most pressing."
(the whole piece looks worth reading, since it talks about R&D management).

Cherry Murray took over his job.

With (possible, but ambiguous) exception of James F.Drake, I couldn't find any other OISM signers, anyway.

Arthur said...

Yes, very disappointing and naive - on the other hand, I suspect this written version of the report was a (perhaps hastily written) least-common-denominator statement they could all agree on, and the actual conclusions of most of the members of the committee may have been stronger.

The framing of the council vote (where now 2 people have confirmed to me that Austin voted with the majority) by the society in the press release is also rather encouraging. So I wouldn't put too much weight on this particular document.

And I'm not sure in what way John and I were right and you wrong? :)

John Mashey said...

Oh the Rabett had a rare bout of self-flagellation.

But in any case, as to why Adair might have been on there....

Once upon a time Surgeon General Luther Terry (a great American hero) put together a panel to assess cigarette smoking. Cigarette companies actually had a *veto* over the panel composition, and Terry picked a panel of people who were not well-known for being already outspoken on this, and was 50% smokers, so the companies could hardly complain. (Well, at least at the beginning, by the end, almost all had quit.) Allan M. Brandt, The Cigarette Century, is a great read on this.

Anonymous said...

John Mashey and Arthur Smith were right (and Eli wrong)

I'm not sure how the statement made by such a small committee can be seen as "representing" the APS any more than a petition by 150 physicists (current and former APS members) out of thousands of physicists who are members of APS can 'represent" the APS as a whole.

Joel said...


The issue is one of how the people are selected. After all, a well-constructed poll of 1000 randomly-selected people can give you a pretty good measure of how a vote by the entire U.S. electorate in a Presidential election is going to turn out. On the other hand, if you poll 1000 people who signed a letter saying that Barack Obama is a socialist who will cause grave harm to America, I don't think you could claim this was very representative of the electorate as a whole.

The committee, of course, was not chosen randomly and the sample size of 6 is rather small. However, it was chosen in a much better way than the self-selection that occurs in signing a petition. And, in particular, it was chosen by the APS members' elected representatives.

Anonymous said...


I understand the concept of random sampling and neither the petition nor the committee even comes close.

The fact that the committee was chosen by members may or may not have any relevance when it comes to "divining" the views of their membership as a whole.

Personally, I find the whole thing rather silly.

I am a physicist myself (though not a member of APS) but I consider is pretty much irrelevant what physicists in general think about climate science.

There may be some who know something about atmospheric physics (and good for them) but I suspect that the majority probably know very little about climate science so their opinion is not worth much more than that of the general public.

It really matters not what the APS thinks or says on this issue precisely because they are completely out of their area of expertise.

The perception by others may be different, of course, but that is how i see things.

John Mashey said...

The petition was silly, but it had a serious purpose, which was to let Fred Singer and others trumpet it as evidence that "physicists familiar with the science" disagreed with the APS (i.e., mainstream) position. If you read the first 20 pages or so of that piece I wrote, you will get a better idea how this worked.

This whole thing was PR, not science.

On the other hand, APS people are increasingly interested in energy an energy-efficiency issues that are intertwined with climate issues.

Finally, *any* physicist should be able to read the 3 things I mention on page. 9,in a few days, whereas I think those would be harder going for much of the population in general.

Anonymous said...

Both Fred Singer and Steve Milloy interpret this week's APS action as a defeat for the skeptics.

-anonymous physicist