Sunday 29 November 2015

The Man who Invented Climate Change (and then disowned it)

Posted by Martin Cohen
The man who started it all off - Herbert Lamb. Source WP:NFCC#4
History, as ever gives an insight into the Climate Change debate. The historian of science, Bernie Lewin, has researched the views of the British scientist who for many years struggled to persuade governments that actually, yes, climate did change. Hubert Lamb, an academic and the founder of the influential Climatic Research Unit (better known by its acronym ‘CRU’) at the University of East Anglia in the UK, is conventionally credited with putting manmade Climate Change on the world agenda. He doesn't get many mentions though - because he came to detest the poltical abuses of his ideas.

Lamb was once described by one of his successors at the CRU, Trevor Davies ( probably self-servingly) as ‘the greatest climatologist of his time’. Davies credits him with ‘convincing the remaining doubters of the reality of climate variation on time-scales of decades and centuries’ and an obituary in Nature offers his great achievement as overturning the ‘old orthodoxy’ of climate stability. Other scientific admirers suggest that it was Lamb who first introduced the idea that climatic change has happened, and is still happening, on human time scales. But Bernie Lewin has no doubt that much of this is political fiction, noting that Lamb was far from the first to introduce the idea of a constantly changing climate. And where Lamb’s successor at his climate research centre found it, ‘ironic’ that even as the world became ‘acutely aware of global climate change’, Lamb maintained a guarded attitude to the importance of greenhouse warming, Lewin sees nothing odd in the position of a scientist advocating the idea of natural climate change being ‘guarded’ about the evidence of a global human influence. Awareness of past variability would rather tend towards scepticism of claims to have identified a single, new and extraordinary cause of climate change.

Hubert Lamb, in fact, was an old-school meteorologist, and there was something of a clash of cultures between those like him brought up on geology and weather records, and the new kinds of ‘climate scientists’ only recently tempted by research money into applying their mathematical skills to the natural world. Lamb expressed open scepticism of the theoretical physics used now to predict future climate trends noting that often the models failed to match reality. He argued for:

* the existence of negative feedbacks dampening warming trends where the climate modellers allowed only positive feedbacks amplifying them;
* that 20th century climate variation was better explained by natural factors (such as solar and volcanic effects);
* wonders how accurate the figures relied on for identifying relatively tiny temperature trends even were.

Such doubts led him to spend time analysing the political impetus for the new climate science, including vested interests, and the reasons why climate modelling in particular received so much support. Lamb completed his memoirs in 1997, just a few months before Kyoto, the international summit in which man-made Climate Change was given it preeminent role. In these memoirs he laments:
‘It is unfortunate that studies produced nowadays treat these and other matters related to changes of climate as if they are always, and only, attributable to the activities of Man and side-effects on the climate.’

This post is lightly adapted from Martin Cohen's book:
Paradigm Shift: How expert opinions keep changing on life, the universe, and everything


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

And now, with a lot of models, with hindsight one can weight them and combine them, which presumably Lamb couldn't do at the time.

I'm wondering how attributing causes meshes with philosophy, although causality is a topic.

docmartincohen said...

The models are fiendishly compicated, but they seem to me to all reston the principle of 'same cause, same effect' But we know that weather does not work like that the butterfly wing causes the hurricane and so on - Lorentz and chaos theory. Okay, people will say, if so, why do the great minds not factor this in? Because it cannot be factored in - knoledge of the future remains necessarily out of our hands

This is, surely, a profoundly philosophical issue too.

Perig Gouanvic said...

I see this from another angle. Most scientists have invested in causes that can be changed and dismissed those factors that can't be changed. This is an instrumentalist bias. Or simply pride.

Henrik Svensmark is unfairly treated because he studies the effects of the outer space, the milky way, and the sun, on clouds, which in turn modulate climate. I don't think he has been fairly treated. See for instance Cosmic rays, clouds and climate.

Then this UK mathematician who shows that the sun fluctuations, when properly understood, have an incredible predictive power. It's been in the news for a few weeks now, and the mud slinging is intense. The original article: Heartbeat of the Sun from Principal Component Analysis and prediction of solar activity on a millenium timescale : Scientific Reports

docmartincohen said...

"Most scientists have invested in causes that can be changed and dismissed those factors that can't be changed."

Yes, like cloud cover and ocean currents. You don't even need to got to exotica like sunspot cycles. And these huge 'uncontrolled effects' dwarf the human one. Not that I'm saying we can't 'do things' to cope - as the Uk moans about flooods this week. What I mean, and indeed Hubert was arguing, is that we can't control the weather or the climate, but we can change what happens when the rain falls, on land or in water courses. Similalry, we can't stop hot summers but we can plant trees and redesign townscapes.

Perig Gouanvic said...

Oh, but the clouds are understood as consequences of solar winds and other particles hitting the higher layers of the atmosphere. This happens in a process called cloud seeding, i think. These particles cause clouds to form. We know that atmospheric water is not rare, and that it is the presence of these seeds which determine if it will assemble as clouds and block heat. Which in turn interact with the oceans by shielding them or not, from the sun's heat.

docmartincohen said...

Meaning it is just very complex and basically unpredictable?

Perig Gouanvic said...

No, what these scientists are saying is that, once we think out of the box of the earth system, with its maddeningly complex feedback loops and "butterfly effects" (not quite sure personally that there are so many, but I'll just parrot that to look clever), we start to see long term trends, and not so long term ones too. Those who believe in CO2 (the is Only One Warmer ...) try to lessen the explanatory and predictive power of the particles from outer space, but it is quite astonshing, IMHO.

docmartincohen said...

Well, yes, there certainly are long-term cycles (eg the Earth wobbling on it axis) and relationships to things like solar activity. The claim is that CO2 trumps these, I think. Certainly in the popular mind, with its talk of millions of years of climatic order being overtuned in the last 30...

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