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Shock: Phil Jones says the obvious. BBC asks real questions.

Here’s the short version of that BBC interview. (Wow? Was it really the BBC?) This major re-framing of the story and admission of facts are part of the ClimateGate Virus epidemic. Journalists are starting to ask better questions, and researchers are starting to give better answers. OK, it’s not exactly a grilling, but neither is Roger Harrabin allowing the UN to promote its scare campaign without a few seriously-pointed questions. This represents almost as big a turnaround for Harrabin as for Jones (which I’ll expand on below). Only two years ago, he claimed skeptics were funded to spread uncertainty, and likened them to tobacco industry lobbyists. How must he feel to suddenly discover they actually had a case worth considering?

Cutting to the chase: paraphrasing Phil Jones

Stripped of the extras, Jones’ answers boil down to the following (I’ve added a few things he didn’t say [in square brackets], and skipped some questions ):

A) This recent warming trend was no different from others we have measured. The world warmed at the same rate in 1860-1880, 1919-1940, and 1975-1998. [Kinda cyclical really, every 55-60 years or so, we start another round.]

Graph hadley global temperature trends, rate of warming, same in 19860-1880 as 1975-1999, quote phil jones,

Hadley Global Temperature Graph with Phil Jones trends annotated on top.

B and C) There has been no statistically significant warming since 1995. But, there has not been a statistically significant cooling since 2001 either. [Ladies and Gentlemen, given the natural volatility of temperatures, we can’t be sure that there’s been any real warming for 15 years.]

D and E) Natural forces could have caused some of the recent warming, but I’m 100% confident that the warming was due to carbon dioxide, even though I’ll admit that the natural forces thing is a bit outside my area of expertise. See Chapter Nine of AR4 for evidence.

F).Should we be more transparent with data? Well…yes.

G).If it was warmer in the Medieval Warm Period, does that bust the idea that carbon causes the warming now? Ah… It could have been warmer, we’re not sure, there’s not much evidence, and I won’t answer that part about “busting anything” directly. [Craig Idso has collected enough evidence to cover a world map showing places on nearly every continent that were warmer a thousand years ago, but  the warming still could have been regional….]

H) If this warming is not usual (as I pretty much said in A, B and G), why do I think carbon “did it”? See D (again). [That’s Assessment Report 4 — the IPCC document that’s being mocked around the world.]

I).Is it reasonable to say that carbon dioxide might not have “done it”? Nope. See D. [That’s AR4 again, and try not to notice the extent of the circular reasoning. Thus:

1. The latest warming is not unusual,and it might have been warmer a thousand years ago. 2. Other things might have caused the warming… 3. We assumed carbon dioxide caused the recent warming, then used models to show that… carbon dioxide accounted for the recent warming (you’d never guess). 4. So we’ve “ruled out all the other causes”, even though the models  can’t explain what happened back in medieval times, or in modern times either (post 1995). All hail Argument from ignorance!]

K).Should we trust that one tree in Yamal? I’m not going to answer that directly either. Ask Keith.

L).I Phil Jones, rely totally on the IPCC (see all the answers that referenced “D”), but don’t ask me about their practises, and whether they bent the rules and acted unscientifically. Ask them. (Why would I check those kinds of things?)

N)The debate is over? Well, some scientists just said that, I’m not sure why, and it’s not really over. Yes the sceptics could be right.

P) My life since ClimateGate? Not much fun.

Q).Why did I hide the decline? Well, the top researchers all knew that tree rings didn’t show rising temperatures after 1960, but I had to draw these graphs for the WMO. The tree rings all measured temperature pretty well before 1960, but after that, the record fell to pieces, so there was no point putting it on the graph. It’s not like I was hiding something. Look, anyone in the public could have asked any dendroclimatologist, or read papers from Nature on tea-breaks, and known straight away that nobody could really explain why tree rings hadn’t grown faster since 1960. [Sure. And it goes without saying that the public would have no problem with the idea that tree rings were good for nearly a thousand years, then failed as thermometers after 1961. It’s not like the public would ask, “Why are we trusting tree rings from 1380 or 1780, but not 1980?”]

The BBC turnaround

Compare this with what Roger Harribin wrote for an in-house BBC publication about climate science in late 2007, and you can grasp why he didn’t see this coming and ask these questions five years ago. He said, “we have to get the science right”, but then his rationale for how to do it boiled down to “consensus” and majority opinion. How did the BBC decide what to report? It surveyed 140 climate scientists, which is interesting, because even then, nearly one-in-five of climate scientists thought the IPCC was too alarmist… But, the BBC was assessing scientific evidence as if scientists voted for the Laws of Nature.

    On one side of the IPCC are some knowledgeable, sceptical climate scientists …
    A more extreme position is taken by some libertarian commentators who distrust government and big institutions, and who characterise climate change as a swindle. Their views appear to be supported by hardly any climate scientists.
    Then there are the ‘skeptics’ (particularly in the US) funded by big business to run ‘think tanks’ spreading uncertainty and thus delaying action. We need to think hard about how and when we invite these various groups to contribute to the debate. Would we, for instance, serve our audiences by inviting lobbyists for tobacco firms to challenge the scientific links between smoking and lung cancer?

The BBC science team was asking the wrong questions. Instead of asking climate scientists about political organisations, why didn’t it ask these same scientists to state their evidence, and then ask the skeptics to do the same? The true task of a science journalist is not to ask which scientists have paper certificates, but which scientists have the best reasoning. We need to know which explanation stands up to the test, not which explanation has the biggest fan club.

If science journalists had been doing their jobs, they would have spotted the holes and flaws 20 years ago, and prevented billions of dollars being wasted.

The story was picked up by the Daily Mail.

UPDATE Jan 2013: Graph added to illustrate the trends that Phil Jones referred too.

UPDATE 2016: swapped the cartoonified pic of Jones for the real one. I never liked the cartoon.

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