The very model of a modern climate scientist

by John McLean

QUADRANT April 3, 2013

Australia’s Climate Commission is beyond a joke. Following hot on the heels of its “Angry Summer” report, which was ridiculed here by Michael Kile, Des Moore and myself, the commission released a media statement headlined “The new normal: Melbourne’s extended Angry Summer”.

Melbourne’s temperature reached some new records in 2013, but why the hysterics about a “new normal”? This supposed “normal” is so “new” that it only occurred this year. March and February in 2012 were quite benign in Melbourne. February maximum temperatures exceeded 30 degrees on six occasions, a run of three late in the month being the most consecutive days. In 2012 March maximum temperature exceeded 30 degrees on just one day. Memo to Climate Commission: It takes more than one instance before it can be called “normal”.

Commissioner Professor Will Steffen is quoted: “However, climate change is now contributing to making these extreme heat conditions worse. These record-breaking events show that climate change is already affecting Victorians” and later “It is important that we understand that the baseline conditions have shifted. We live in a hotter world …”

The first statement makes unproven assertions, derived doubtless from un-validated models of weather, and he confuses weather with climate. The second is dismissed by the most widely cited temperature dataset, the HadCRUT3 data set from the UK’s Hadley Centre and the Climatic Research Unit. The HadCRUT3 data says that there’s been no statistically significant increase in temperatures in the last 16 years. The CRU director said this two years ago and IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri recently said that the pause in warming was now 17 years. This begs the question to Steffen, hotter than when?

Melbourne’s March heat wave was caused, as almost always, by a near-stationary High in the Tasman Sea. The earliest available online BoM media statement for Victoria, dated 30 February [sic] 2000 says in part, “Bureau of Meteorology figures released today, show that much of southern Victoria experienced one of its hottest Februarys on record. The hot weather was brought about by long spells of north to north-east winds around high pressure systems, which tended to persist over the Tasman Sea.” The pattern is entirely predictable; the only unknown is how long the high will persist.

In addition to a charming photo of Steffen enjoying a gropup hug with a bevy of young warmists (above), the Climate Commission web pages describe him as a “climate change expert and researcher”. So how can entirely typical meteorologic conditions be overlooked, or the difference between climate and weather confused?

We are forever hearing from “climate scientists” about the dire perils poised to consume our planet, but what is a climate scientist when all is said and done? Steffen’s progress through academia, his papers and the journals in which they are published might provide us with some guidance.

Steffen holds a BSc in Chemical Engineering and PhD in chemistry, rather than in any field directly related to determining whether the human influence on climate is significant, negligible or virtually non-existent. During the 1980s he worked with the CSIRO on the “soil-plant-atmosphere system” and from there moved into work on the biosphere (i.e. flora and fauna). He emerged 14 years later as one of those forever-quoted experts on climate science.

There’s no doubt that he’s the “author of numerous publications on climate science”, as the Climate Commission web pages tell us, but many of those publications appear to be books or reports that were unlikely to be peer-reviewed.

His peer-reviewed papers include one for Science in 2000, but with 17 authors for just six pages it’s not clear that his contribution was significant. This was eclipsed by 30 authors for a four-page paper in Nature in 2001, although 26 authors for nine pages in Global Environmental Change, also in 2001, tried hard, and 29 authors for a four-page paper in Nature in 2009 came even closer.

Where he has written papers alone or with few co-authors we find them in journals like Ambio, Carbon Balance Management, Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Climate Change and Biological Conservation, none of which seem mainstream science or “climate science” journals.

The abstracts of these papers suggest a common format that assumes manmade global warming is significant and dangerous, then looks at its possible impact and potential countermeasures. They tend towards polemics that draw heavily on the work of others and add relatively little in the way of original thought.

The Climate Commission web page mentioned above tells us that Steffen is “a researcher”. Elsewhere he says, “It was during this period that I focused my own research efforts towards synthesis and integration, often assembling teams of top researchers…”, which again poses the question as to the extent of his own input.

If Steffen has ventured into the hard science that seeks to quantify the amount of warming to be expected from increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, his paper trail is rather hard to find. He is nevertheless quick to dismiss those who are sceptical of the claim that the warming is, or will be, significant. In a 2010 ANU news report he referred to sceptics as “deniers”. In the same report he went on to say, “The climate system has continued to warm strongly through the 2000-09 decade.”

We now know this assertion to be incorrect, not only because of the hiatus in warming for the last 17 years but, across the decade in question, the HadCRUT3 annual global average temperature anomalies varied by less than 0.1 degrees for eight of those years. The 2000-09 trend in annual averages rose at about 0.3 degrees/century, but omit the first year and the trend was for cooling at just over double that rate.

In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald in July, 2011 he said, “Well over 90% of scientists in the area are quite clear: the Earth is warming and human activity is the major cause.”

He asks his audience to believe that scientific questions are resolved by the amount support for a hypothesis, rather than by the usual method: how well the hypothesis accounts for historical observations and predicts future ones. Perhaps, with the absence of warming for 16 or 17 years, all that Steffen can cling to is his belief that a supposed-but-unproven consensus among scientists amounts to something.

The Climate Commission is joke enough in itself; that it is composed of advocates all harkening unto the same catastropharian creed makes its pretensions and opera bouffe self-importance all the more laughable.

Forever ready to be quoted, Steffen defines the sort of science the Commission prefers – “science”, remember, that confuses climate with weather. As a tool of rational, unbiased inquiry, the Commission is worse than a joke. It is a farce.

UPDATE: The Climate Commission has just released a report, The critical decade: extreme weather. Again it fails to mention the meteorological causes of heatwaves or cyclones, but asserts that these events are influenced by manmade warming.

It also fails to provide any evidence whatsoever that CO2 emissions have caused or exacerbated the reported phenomenon. The basis for its claims is nothing more than a correlation that is undermined by these events being rare before this summer, despite the absence of a statistically significant increase in global average temperatures over the last 16 years.

To put it simply, if temperatures haven’t risen then it is fanciful to blame temperature for weather events of just the last few months.

John McLean was co-author with Chris de Freitas and Bob Carter of a paper that became the centre of controversy when submitted to the Journal of Geophysical Research. Their experience with the censors of science can be read here.

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