Revenge of the Climate Laymen

  • Date: 19/11/09

Barack Obama conceded over the weekend that no successor to the Kyoto Protocol would be signed in Copenhagen next month. With that out of the way, it may be too much to hope that the climate change movement take a moment to reflect on the state of the science that is supposedly driving us toward a carbon-neutral future.

But should a moment for self-reflection arise, campaigners against climate change could do worse than take a look at the work of Stephen McIntyre, who has emerged as one of the climate change gang’s Most Dangerous Apostates. The reason for this distinction? He checked the facts.

The retired Canadian businessman, whose self-described “auditing” a few years ago prompted a Congressional review of climate science, has once again thrown EnviroLand into a tailspin. In September, he revealed that a famous graph using tree rings to show unprecedented 20th century warming relies on thin data. Since its publication in 2000, University of East Anglia professor Keith Briffa’s much-celebrated image has made star appearances everywhere from U.N. policy papers to activists’ posters. Like other so-called “hockey stick” temperature graphs, it’s an easy sell—one look and it seems Gadzooks! We’re burning ourselves up!

“It was the belle of the ball,” Mr. McIntyre told me on a recent phone call from Ontario. “Its dance card was full.”

At least until Mr. McIntyre reported that the modern portion of that graph, which shows temperatures appearing to skyrocket in the last 100 years, relies on just 12 tree cores in Russia’s Yamal region. When Mr. McIntyre presented a second graph, adding data from 34 tree cores from a nearby site, the temperature spike disappears.

Mr. Briffa denounces Mr. McIntyre’s work as “demonstrably biased” because it uses “a narrower area and range of sample sites.” He says he and his colleagues have now built a new chronology using still more data. Here, as in similar graphs by other researchers, the spike soars once again. Mr. McIntyre’s “work has little implication for our published work or any other work that uses it,” Mr. Briffa concludes.

He and his colleagues may well ignore Mr. McIntyre, but the rest of us shouldn’t. While Mr. McIntyre’s image may use data from fewer sites, it still has nearly three times as many tree cores representing the modern era as Mr. Briffa’s original.

Yet Mr. McIntyre is first to admit his work is no bullet aimed at the heart of the theory of man-made climate change. Rather, his work—chronicled in papers co-written with environmental economist Ross McKitrick and more than 7,000 posts on his Climateaudit.org Weblog—does something much more important: It illustrates the uncertainty of a science presented as so infallible as to justify huge new taxes on rich countries along with bribes to poor ones in order to halt their fossil-fueled climbs to prosperity. Mr. McIntyre offers what many in the field do not: rigor.

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