Richard A. Muller of UC Berkeley is an engaging, smart, and maverick physicist who has spent a good part of his career chewing on off-beat but not crazy hypotheses until they either fall apart or gain some credibility. He is good at being realistic about those that don't hold up or stall for lack of more data (his hunch never caught on that a distant solar companion, a brown dwarf named Nemesis, occasionally sprays comets into the inner solar system). Perhaps by nature he looked fishy-eyed at global warming science until he took a hard look for himself. Two tempting ways to judge his latest analysis of climate change data are 1) Wow, if even a skeptic of the mainstream's consensus that climate change has us ankle deep in offal with knee- and hip-deep in sight can change his mind, that's a triumph for scientific method and maybe a politically effective tide-turner or, 2) He's a scientist. He had not paid much attention to global warming before. He and his group finally got serious on the stats. The team, even with its extra data base, essentially has caught up with the consensus as of, oh, 1990. So what? Nothin' new here at all.
I lean to the latter reaction but, given the political stalemate, hope the first one gets vindication too.
The news of course is that the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) Project that he leads dropped its second shoe on Sunday in an influential non-scientific journal: the op-ed section of the NYTimes. Not only has the planet really warmed by about 1.5 degrees F (about 0.8 C) in the last century as the group reported last year to a thunderous told-you-so from authorities on the topic, but by far the best explanation is the greenhouse effect of CO2 and other forcings on climate imposed by human industry, land-use changes, and like that. A principle finding is that the history of CO2 concentrations alone is by iteself enough to explain it. Muller said (I saw him do it on MSNBC's Maddow show last night) that when he realized that carbon dioxide trends are by far the best choice he was shocked. So presto! he's no climate skeptic. The team's results are formally hung up, mostly unpublished at the Journal of Geophysical Research, but have been posted for all to see (See Grist below).
You've most likely heard the gist already. There is a blogstorm raging as a result. Science reporters who followed the norms of journalism (neutral voice even if feigned, a variety of reactions from selected sources that the reporters think merit a say, etc.) have also weighed in. What stands out is that many major outlets did not cover it. Perhaps they regarded this as politics, not science – paying big attention to Muller's turnabout may be like giving big headlines to the fourth-from-last finisher in a huge field of marathoners. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps however the sheer politics of it is not a demerit but is why in fact it IS news. But …. if science writers don't cover it, that leaves it to political and general assignment people.
Now, if Pat Michaels or Anthony Watts or Benny Peiser or Richard Lindzen report scales falling from their eyes, that'll be NEWS.
Story samples, news agency articles and a few reporter-blogs:
- NYTimes Dot Earth blog – Andrew C. Revkin: 'Converted' Skeptic; Humans Driving Recent Warming ; Revkin lays out the publishing and peer-review questions on the paper and provides snippets of the range of reaction in the academy including such ones as that the new report is rubbish and suggestions of tepid gratitude for expanding the data set of temperature records. He opines that despite any procedural flaws in the new work it is probably basically correct. Andy has a followup blog that suggests an equality of presumed merit in a data analyses by blogging, skeptic-meteorologist Anthony Watts and by the National Climate Data Center. Really?
- Washington Post/Capital Weather Gang blog – Jason Samenow: So-called blockbuster climate change studies prove little ; More on both the BEST and the Anthony Watts papers. Best quote3 from Michael Mann: Muller et al "… demonstrate what scientists have known with some degree of confidence for nearly two decades…."
- Guardian (UK) Philip Ball: Richard Muller's volte face on climate change is good for science ; Goes for nuance – yes, Muller was a skeptic and he switched. But he's not your usual "skeptic" who is best described as a denier. Rather, he believes stuff when he sees it, and he's simply never looked very intently before at climate data. But while the new study reinforced dominant science, perhaps Muller took his doubts a bit far, Ball adds: "There's a fine line between trusting your own judgment and assuming everyone else is a blinkered incompetent." One thinks that's why there is so little cheering for this paper from other authorities who have been working hard in the field for many years. They're surely just a wee insulted that consensus reports from so many scientific academies and large-team investigations that all reach the same, general conclusion as reflected in IPCC reports, carry scant cred with Prof. Muller.
- San Francisco Chronicle – David Perlman: UC climate-change skeptic changes views ; Once again, it says here, Muller says that discovery of merit in a conclusion reached long ago by experts in the field – that extra CO2 is the prime driver of manifest warming – was "a shocker." Perlman gets from front-rank scientific contrarian Richard Lindzer the opinion that warming is real, but minor, and that the carbon dioxide attribution is "naive and even silly." He lets Muller get in the last jab – by characterizing the data on which all the other groups reached the same endpoint as "a lot of Augean stables" and we know what they were full of but now, Muller believes, his team pretty much cleaned them out.
- LiveScience – Natalie Wolchover: Former Global Warming Skeptic Makes a "Total Turnaround" ;
- St. Johns Telegram (Newfoundland, but I first mistook it for UK's Telegraph) Editorial: The denial method ; Good take on things. More interesting perhaps is one of the comments which marshalls evidence, which I did not check, that casts doubt on the idea that Muller was such a staunch skeptic in the first place. That'd be worth looking into.
- Nature Newsblog – Jeff Tollefson: Amid criticism, Berkeley Earth extends record, upholds findings ; Super summary of why the new study is welcome but will get no parades in the scientific realm.
– Charlie Petit