December 7, 2004

Nature lays (another) egg

Filed under: Climate History

Once again, the most influential scientific periodical mixes political bias and scientific hijinks, touting climate change hyperbole just in time for Tony Blair’s ascendancy of the G-8.

Nature magazine hasn’t ever been very shy about printing really loosey-goosey stuff just when the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) needs a boost or when our friends at the UN had some glitzy confab coming up on the next bad climate treaty.

No one has ever forgotten their 1996 gaffe, timed for the UN Geneva meeting that gave rise to the Kyoto Protocol. In that instance, they published a paper by various federal climatologists demonstrating that upper-air data from 1963 through 1987 matched up with gloom-and-doom climate models.

Why didn’t they use the complete record, which ran (then) from 1957 through 1995? When they did, all correspondence between the models and reality disappeared. It just happened that 1963 was very cold, thanks to a blow-up of the big volcano Agung, and 1987 was warm thanks to El Nino, and the overall record showed no change at all.

But now things are really political.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is about to assume the presidency, for a year, of the G-8. He’s already stated his two top priorities are global warming and terrorism. In which order? Well, his science advisor, Sir David King, is going around the world telling everyone that global warming is a far worse threat than international terrorism. ’Nuff said.

As per usual, Nature has obliged, publishing yet another we’re-all-gonna-die story, this time blaming the summer heat waves of the variety Europe saw in 2003, which, according to author Peter Stott and others, will occur every other year by midcentury.

How do they know? A climate model tells them so. A climate model in which carbon dioxide increases by 0.83% per year. For what it’s worth, the truth (apparently not worth much any more at Nature) is that the increase was 0.39% in the 1970s, 0.45% in the 1980’s and 0.42% in the 1990s. We think that averages to somewhere around half of what’s going into this climate model. Because climate models are largely linear with their warming with respect to carbon dioxide increases, that means their model is overpredicting warming in the next several decades (say, to about 2050) by the same 50%.

That’s not to say that the percent increase won’t go up some in the next 50 years, but assuming that’s happening today is just dead wrong, and to think it’s going to get there very soon—enough to make the average for the next 50 years 0.83%–itself invalidates the result. It’s thought that the time that it takes a carbon dioxide increment to really express itself as surface temperature is several decades, so today’s concentration changes would have far more influence on 2050 than those of 2025.

When confronted with this reality, live on BBC-TV, by World Climate Report editor Patrick Michaels, third author Myles Allen defended the wrong number, because, he said, that’s what the UN uses and it is a respected scenario. Under the glare of the lights, later, he did admit that if you tuned their model with reality (as opposed to the looney 0.83% scenario), that you would get the exact amount of warming that we have been talking about in these pages for years—a mere three-quarters of a degree per half-century.

So what do you trust, reality or scenarios?

What’s really galling about the Stott paper, though, is its blatant political polemicism masquerading as science. Nature requires a first paragraph that functions much like the “abstract” of a science paper, distilling the relevant findings into something that people too busy to read the details (i.e. the people who make up global warming policy) can use. As such, it’s supposed to reflect what follows in the paper.

Consider, then, the first sentence of the first paragraph: “The Summer of 2003 was probably the hottest in Europe since at least A.D. 1500, and unusually large numbers of heat-related deaths were reported in France, Germany and Italy.”

What does a search on the word “death” reveal in the succeeding four pages? Nothing. Not a word on it. Perhaps the first few clauses, preceding the sentence above, should have been this:

“Sir David King, Prime Minister Blair’s science advisor, wants us to terrorize you about global warming, so think about this: The summer of 2003 was….”

Cut to the end: “The UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change says its purpose is to prevent ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system.’”

So, in service of the P.M. and his science advisor, after using a model with the wrong input data, Stott et al. wrote: “…it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that potentially dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system is already under way.”

Here’s the logic. A lot of people died from heat-related causes in the hot summer of 2003. These will become more frequent—occurring approximately once every other year—by 2050, as the climate warms, and people are so stupid that they will slowly fry and expire, rather than adapting to this gradual change.

Your team here tested this hypothesis in the International Journal of Biometeorology. What we found was that, as urban climates slowly warmed (FYI: they don’t need global warming to do this), heat-related deaths became more infrequent and in fact in some cities cannot be statistically located anymore. For that, we won climate “paper of the year” from the Association of American Geographers. Yet Stott et al., brandishing hundreds of thousands of heat-related deaths in front of Tony Blair, couldn’t bring themselves to cite it. It seems it was far too sobering—though not in the same way as their doom-and-gloom scenario of human-caused climate disaster. (To read more about how people adapt to high temperatures, see:


Stott, P.A., Stone, D.A., Allen, M.R., 2004. Human contribution to the European heatwave of 2003. Nature, 432, 610-614.

Davis, R.E., Knappenberger, P.C., Novicoff, W.M., Michaels, P.J., 2003. Decadal changes in summer mortality in U.S. cities. International Journal of Biometeorology, 47, 166-175.

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