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Karl Finds “No Smoking Gun”

Tom Karl, probably one of the nation’s most respected climatologists, has received a lot of press recently because he has become convinced that there is now a human fingerprint on the atmosphere.  But his personal feelings aren’t quite so apocalyptic as the global warming story that has been portrayed in the press.  Commenting on the Sept. 25 Diane Rehm Show, National Public Radio’s required hour for Washington Wonks, he said he found “no smoking gun” and that any climate change was “very subtle.”

Indeed.  Much is being made of Karl’s finding that the frequency of days with rainfall of two inches or more has increased in the United States.  After Karl’s results were presented to the Vice President (and long before they were published in the refereed scientific literature), Mr. Gore used them to spice his annual Earth Day speech.  “Torrential rains have increased in the summer during agricultural growing seasons,” he told the nation last March.

In fact, what Karl found is that there is an even chance of one more day in every two years on which the rainfall is two inches or more.   That’s one in 730 days. There is surely no way this would be apparent to anyone but the most committed computer.

But even Tom tried the negative spin on Diane’s show. When it was pointed out that no one remembers the last 730 days of weather, he said the percentage of the nation’s rain resulting from two-inch (or more) rainfalls has risen from 9% in the early part of this century to 12% today.  “That’s a 33% increase!” Tom told listeners.

We’re also interested in the Veep’s statement vaunting increases in “torrential” rains.  Apparently an increase in 0.136% (that’s 1/730) of days in which it rains more than two inches is noteworthy.  The most frequent category of rains greater than two inches is in fact merely between two and three inches in 24 hours.  Is that “torrential,” or is all of this “exaggerated”?

Or is it really the greenhouse effect?  Our plot, taken from Karl’s paper, shows the history of the increasing summer frequency of two-inch or more rainfalls in 24 hours about which the Vice President has expressed such concern.  The largest increase occurred from 1925 to 1945, before there was much of a greenhouse change.  Since then—concurrent with the increase in the greenhouse effect—there’s been very little change, and no trend at all since the mid-1970s, or for the last 20 years.

Figure 1 (5143 bytes)

Figure 1.  Change in percentage of total precipitation falling from rainstorms of two inches or more in 24 hours.   The biggest rise occurred before the greenhouse effect changed very much.

We’re currently looking very closely at this rainfall data to get to the bottom of this “story.” Watch for future Reports.


Karl, T.R., R.W. Knight, and N. Plummer (1995).  Trends in high-frequency climate variability in the twentieth century.  Nature, 337, 217–220.


Climate Policy of the “Anointed:”  The Avoidance of Peer Review

Beginning Sunday, Sept. 10, and over the following 16 days, the New York Times published five articles (two front-page) on an “unreleased” draft report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (“Not for citation or reproduction”).  The IPCC claims to represent the consensus of scientists  on the global warming and  climate change issue.

Thomas Sowell, in his recent book The Vision of the Anointed, outlines the process by which small cliques of self-appointed experts (the “Anointed”) set national policy without the inconvenience of having their ideas independently analyzed and critiqued.  Sowell identifies of this process:

STAGE 1.   The “Crisis.”  Some situation exists that bothers some people.  (Global Warming will destroy our planet.)

STAGE 2.   The “Solution.”  The Anointed promulgate policies to end the “Crisis.”  (A carbon tax.)

STAGE 3.   The Results.  These policies produce some unanticipated detrimental results.  (Unemployment, economic decline, and the like.)

STAGE 4.   The Response.  Those who criticize the “Solution” are dismissed by the Anointed for their oversimplification of the issue.  The Anointed claim things would be even worse if not for the policies instituted in STAGE 2.  The Anointed have no responsibility to justify their positions based upon empirical data.

Of course, nothing like this could happen in science, where detailed reviews by independent scholars determine the validity of hypotheses.  Or could it?  Unfortunately, the applicability of Sowell’s arguments to the global warming issue is striking.  This is especially troubling since, in an ideal world, policies related to scientific issues should be driven entirely by good science.

The new U.N. report on climate change* is supposed to represent the “state of the science” on greenhouse gas–induced climate change—a compendium produced by the top climate scientists in the world summarizing their current understanding of the issues.   It follows that the report is a hot political document, since it will be used by world governments for economic planning.  It will serve as the “Climate Bible” for years to come (or at least until the next IPCC report is issued).

Here’s how the IPCC review process works.  A handful of experts is assigned to write each chapter.  These chapter editors solicit short summary reports (two pages) from “contributors” on their unique areas of expertise.  The reports are compiled (i.e., included, revised, or ignored) by the editors into the 13 chapters of the report.  Once written, the entire draft report is submitted to the contributors and to others for peer review.

Independent peer review is sacred in science: it is the process by which new ideas are advanced, altered, or discounted.  Without proper peer review, scientific hypotheses can be proposed willy-nilly with no burden of proof.   Thus, in the most respected technical journals, publication  criteria are strict—full documentation of sources must be included.  The sources cited must be from other peer-reviewed publications that have withstood the test of scientific scrutiny.  Little or no value is given to publications in the “gray literature”—abstracts and proceedings papers from conferences or workshops, in-house technical reports, transcriptions of lectures, unpublished theses and dissertations, articles in newsletters (with the obvious exception of this one), and “personal communications.”   In many journals, these citations cannot be used unless they represent the origination of an idea.

World Climate Report editors were among the hundreds of contributors and peer-reviewers of the IPCC report.  During our reviews, we found numerous scientific statements in the text that hadn’t been published in the refereed literature.  In fact, to our astonishment, some apparently hadn’t yet been written!  So, in the interest of good science, we did the following investigation.

Every citation in the References section of each chapter was checked for suitability and tallied (Figure 1).  Overall, a shocking 648 of the 1,969 references (or 33%) are improper—based on the standards used by top-ranking scientific journals.

Figure 1 (10772 bytes)

Figure 1.  Total percentage of citations contained in the IPCC manuscript that do not meet the standards of top-ranking scientific journals.  Acceptable references make up the remainder.

Papers listed as “in press” were unavailable to the reviewers, so their validity or impact could not be scrutinized.  Publications in the gray literature are not only difficult to find but have not been subjected to peer review.  Each chapter included submitted papers and manuscripts “to be submitted” or “in preparation.”

We also included citations of previous IPCC reports in our counts since, based on this document, the track record is not the greatest.  Some citations contained only the author’s name followed by a question mark.  And some more humorous examples included “almost accepted,” “submitted?” (sic), and our personal favorite—“unpublished.”

Critics will argue that most of these citations are appropriate since climate research is progressing so rapidly—owing to the urgency of the issue—that important new findings are uncovered every day.  This is classic STAGE 4 thinking—the results of climate’s Anointed don’t require peer review (Translation:  “I know I’m right, so you’ll have to trust me”).

But there’s a name for ideas whose acceptance is based on trusting the messenger: religion.  So, is the most important climate report of the century really based on science, or does it represent the beliefs of the Anointed experts with the imprimatur of the world’s leading climate researchers?

To be fair, only one-third of the report couldn’t properly be reviewed.  Should we therefore question one-third of the conclusions, or are all of the conclusions off by a factor of one-third?  On the other hand, it’s possible that the text would be unchanged with the exclusion of these improper references.  If so, then why were they included?

Over the next year or two, the scientific literature will no doubt be replete with papers finally answering many of the key unresolved questions on climate change (since they are all in press, submitted for publication, or have recently been presented at conferences or workshops).  Only a cynic would think that all of these results are not worthy of publication in the peer-reviewed literature.

To some this may seem like much ado about nothing.  But when peer-reviewing a document as potentially influential as this, it is a responsibility not to be taken lightly.  Upon the report’s official release, the global press will wax poetic that a consensus of scientists from all across our threatened, dying planet has united in a statement about the dangers of current and future climate trends (STAGE 1).  So what are we going to do about it (STAGE 2)?  The IPCC proposes “The Solution.”

Report readers now know the rest of the story.  Reviewers of the report (active climate researchers) were asked to complete their work without access to a sizeable portion of the information on which the report itself is based.  Thus, climate’s Anointed have avoided proper peer review while giving the impression of thorough review and the production of a consensus document.

In the conclusion of his book, Thomas Sowell writes:

In order that this relatively small group of people can believe themselves wiser and nobler than the common herd, we have adopted policies which impose heavy costs on millions of other human beings, not only in taxes but also in lost jobs, social disintegration, and a loss of personal safety.  Seldom have so few cost so much to so many.


Sowell, Thomas (1995).  The Vision of the Anointed:  Self Congratulations as a Basis for Social Policy.  Basic Books, New York, 305 pp.

Postscript:  As a contributing author and reviewer of the U.N. document, the Report editor was intrigued that the model the IPCC said tracked the climate best (and also forecast much reduced warming) appeared still to produce too much warming in the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere.   But, without the internal workings of this new model output in hand, it was impossible to fully analyze this important work.  When that output was requested—a normal thing in any scientific review—it was refused.  Not once, not twice, but five times.