Anybody expecting earthshaking news from Berkeley, now that the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature group being led by Richard Muller has released its results, had to be content with a barely perceptible quiver. As far as the basic science goes, the results could not have been less surprising if the press release had said “Man Finds Sun Rises At Dawn.” This must have been something of a disappointment for anyone hoping for something else.
For those not familiar with it, the purpose of Berkeley Earth was to create a new, independent compilation and assessment of global land surface temperature trends using new statistical methods and a wider range of source data. Expectations that the work would put teeth in accusations against CRU and GISTEMP led to a lot of early press, and an invitation to Muller to testify before Congress. However, the big news this week (e.g. this article by the BBC’s Richard Black) is that there is no discernible difference between the new results and those of CRU.
Of course, there was no real surprise about any of this — especially not for those who’ve been paying attention to climate science for the last several decades. It was most notable, perhaps, for the commendable bluntness with which Muller acknowledged the error of his own prior belief, that mainstream climate scientists may have fallen prey to unexamined bias, perhaps, or maybe much worse.
Instead, he found every major study got the basic picture of anthropogenic global warming correct. He said so, and acknowledged the need to correct his prior belief.
That said, it is worth noting that Steig does not give Muller a complete pass. He points out, fairly IMHO, the bumptious hubris with which Muller launched into his project — and then he pointed out what is to my mind the key idea in all of this. Global warming is a focus of concern not because of any one set of temperature measurements or another, but because the underlying theory provides the framework with which to interpret the data that so many have labored so long to acquire:
In a talk at AGU last Fall, Naomi Oreskes criticized the climate science community for being reluctant to take credit for their many successful predictions, so here we are shouting it from the rooftops: The warming trend is something that climate physicists saw coming many decades before it was observed. The reason for interest in the details of the observed trend is to get a better idea of the things we don’t know the magnitude of (e.g. cloud feedbacks), not as a test of the basic theory. If we didn’t know about the CO2-climate connection from physics, then no observation of a warming trend, however accurate, would by itself tell us that anthropogenic global warming is “real,” or (more importantly) that it is going to persist and probably increase.
Give Steig and the broad community of climate researchers their due: it must be unbelievably galling to see “last honest man” praise heaped on some bumptious newcomer who’s signal contribution to the field is to discover that perhaps the objects of his suspicion actually knew what they were doing. At the same time, such high profile crow fressing is itself praise, deserved and, I hope, gratifying.
The predictable footnote to this clear success of scientific practice (a good result, even if, as Steig correctly points out, one that’s much less significant scientifically than politically) is that it seems to have made not a dent in the professional denialist’s carapace. Again, no surprise here, just a reminder of how much work is to be done to get the US (and elsewhere) back into the business of taking expert knowledge seriously.
Image: Gioachino Assereto, Isaac Blessing Jacob, c. 1640.