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Catalyst: climate astrology in your very own backyard

The ABC tv program Catalyst was quite special last Thursday. Was that a science report, or an advertorial?

Brisbane Stevenson Screen 1890's

Brisbane was recording temperatures with modern Stevenson Screens in 1890, as were some other stations, but the BOM often ignores these long records.

Forget gloom and doom it’s “kinder” climate now

The ABC team have shifted gear. They heard they should stop being all gloom and doom (it’s climate fatigue you know) and make it simple. So they did, and everything was delivered in a cheesy canter, like an episode of Playschool. Smile everyone! Floods will increase, but we won’t hammer you with ominous music, instead we’ll show Jonica-the-presenter cleaning the floor of her very own home, joking about the pesky trickle in the living room (To paraphrase: It’s flooded again — can you believe?).

Dr Jonica Newby reckons things have changed since she bought her house. It’s simply unthinkable that the climate now is not exactly the same at her house as it was when she first moved in — way back in the historic year of…  2000. (Gosh, eh? I wonder why the BOM don’t publish a paper on it?) Now our national debate is reduced to presenters, not presenting evidence, but just telling us what they reckon.  She has lived there for twelve long  years after all, and in just another 18 years it’ll be a whole climate data point. Need I say more?

With this kind of mindless anecdotery, it’s fair to ask: is Catalyst still a science show?

If a skeptic said the weather hadn’t changed at their house for 12 years, wouldn’t Catalyst accuse them of mindless cherry picking, ignoring the big picture, and being unscientific?

Speaking of cherry picking: what about the endless droughts that were predicted, or the dams that would not ever fill again, or the four expensive desalination plants in Australia that are not being used? Doesn’t that tell us something about the state of climate science?

How about some statistical chicanery?

Newby tells us that we’ve had … 330 months of above average temperatures (from this NOAA report). It sounds awfully scarey. What are the odds of that? Dr Mark Howden tells us that there is only (gasp) a 1 in 100,000 chance of that happening in “the absence of human influence”.

So where does the 1 in 100,000 estimate come from?

According to the production notes, the number comes from Kokic et al 2012 (submitted). So it’s unpublished. Without seeing the paper it’s impossible to know, and there is no pre-print I can find. But even without the calculations we know that to calculate any probability at all, they would have to start with assumptions we know are wrong.

Nonsense assumptions: either temperatures are flat, or climate models can predict the natural part of the current warming trend.

The temperature of the world is not and has never been “flat”. Obviously, see this graph, or this graph, there is no “flatness” nor a meaningful global average temperature  — there is only change. Moreso, things have been warming since the depths of the Little Ice Age in 1680, so centuries before our CO2 became significant some warming factor kicked in (90% of our emissions are post-1945). Their models don’t know what that factor was. Since the world has been warming for 300 years,  above-average months are hardly unusual, instead they are expected. (Unless of course, you used the average temperature of the Holocene, but that’s another story).

As for the assumption that climate models and climate scientists can pick out the “natural” trend (and thus calculate the “unnatural” part) — we know current models are unvalidated and the theory behind the models disproved many times over. Models don’t predict the climate on local, regional, or continental scales, nor do they work on the short term or the long term. If we can’t pick out the natural warming component, calculating the odds is meaningless.

As it happens, most of the warming in the last 50 years probably comes  from one step change in 1977. Of course, averages after that step up would be higher than those before, and it has nothing to do with CO2.

Howden and Newby don’t even try to name any evidence that man-made emissions cause significant warming. They just assert this is the case. I asked for any observational evidence in support of catastrophic warming 34 months ago. If the observations were overwhelming, it is odd that no one seems to have found the mystery paper yet, though the Earth apparently depends on it?

Then there is the thing about our short records. The climate rolls in a 60 year cycle where temperatures warm for 30 years then cool for thirty years, so getting 27 years of above average temperatures would be — not unusual. Climate scientists tell us that 30 years makes a “trend” but in these Kokic et al calculations, it appears every month pretends to have significance. As Ken Stewart points out, the Australian share index has also been “above average” for 330 months or more. Is that evidence of “unnatural forces”?

If we start with the wrong assumptions, there are all kinds of ways to get 330 meaningless “highs” in a row.

 The real meaning of heat deaths and “harvesting”

Talking about Black Saturday, Newby points out that during that heatwave, it wasn’t just the fires that killed, ” it turned out an extra 370 people died during that week than you’d expect. Essentially, it means that they were tipped over the edge by heat stress. There’s a rather confronting in-house term that’s used for this. They call it ‘premature harvesting’.”

What Newby doesn’t realize is that it’s called “harvesting” because it’s often those who are close to death who succumb to the heat. It’s well known that after the heat wave and the spike in mortality, there is often a fall in deaths for the next few weeks [for example see here and here]. It’s also called the “mortality displacement effect “. In other words, sometimes a heat wave only shortens a life by a few weeks. That is not the same in a cold snap, where there is no reduction in mortality afterwards. (See  Kysely et al 2009 and CO2 science. )

Winter kills more people than summer does. If we could make summers warmer and winters less cold, we’d save lives. Is that so bad?

And as far as wine goes, grapes in Australia’s south might be ripening, on average, “20 days earlier than in 1985”, but the raw data from the region where The Brown Brothers winery is, shows that global warming hasn’t hit the area.

What record heat?

Catalyst warned us of the recent record temperatures: “Melbourne hit 46.5 degrees. Hopetoun hit 48.8.”

Dr David Jones
We broke the Victorian record by 1.6 degrees. You know, these are records going back over 50 years. You know, you’re not breaking ’em by… by, you know, a few tenths of a degree – you’re breaking ’em by whole degrees or more.

Newby knows that the BOM have records going back 100 years (and more) but didn’t think to ask why Jones says “50 years”. What happened to all the thermometers before 1962? The truth is that the BOM has far hotter records, like these astonishing ones of 50C temperatures in 1896, and an amazing 53.9C recorded by none other than Charles Sturt in 1828. The independent volunteers on the BOM audit team have found dozens of examples of warmer temperatures in Australia, and seemingly, longer more widespread heatwaves. They also found examples of bird deaths en masse from the heat.

To be fair, all climate records are uncertain, which is exactly why the BOM and the ABC ought not propagate the myth that the current “records” are meaningful. The records from the 1800’s were not always done with standardized equipment, (though they had Stevenson screens from the 1880’s) but modern equipment has it’s own problems. Many sites are now closer to airports (and all that baking hot tarmac), which didn’t exist in 1896. Not to mention there weren’t too many car parks in the days before cars, and not too many air conditioners, or 6 lane highways either. Does that matter in Australia? We don’t know. It matters in the US and nearly doubles the trend, but no one has done that audit here.

BOM Adjustments? What BOM Adjustments?

Not only are modern  thermometers more likely to suffer from artificial heat sources, the BOM inexplicably makes adjustments that push modern records up, and older records down.  The BOM will not explain on a station-by-station basis why it makes these inexplicable adjustments.  Modern data has not been audited independently in Australia despite many requests. See Brisbane below and others here.

The BOM claims their adjustments are neutral:

Dr David Jones, Head of Climate Monitoring and Prediction, National Climate Centre, Bureau of Meteorology, stated clearly that the adjustments madea near zero impact on the all Australian temperature”.

When skeptics asked for an audit from the ANAO, the BOM responded by creating a new data-set, which has similar problems, (ie. short records, spurious and careless errors, and is very different from the raw data). It was a lot of trouble for the BOM to do too and in a rush, but it meant it could avoid an independent audit. Hmm.

In the newer ACORN set the BOM carefully and deceptively rewordsmithed the “neutral” claim:

“There is an approximate balance between positive and negative adjustments for maximum temperature but a weak tendency towards a predominance of negative adjustments (54% compared with 46% positive) for minimum temperature.”

There may be a numerical balance in adjustments,  this is technically true but deceptive, because the adjustments that warm the trend are larger. What was ominous about this was that this time the BOM knew the neutral claim would be wrong, they could have made the adjustments neutral or explained why it was scientifically justified, instead they chose to keep it, but reword it.

When nearly half of Australia’s reported “warming” comes from adjustments that are called “neutral”, something very unscientific is going on.

If Catalyst wanted to create a one sided show demonstrating how tough the climate was in the 1900’s and how easy we have it now,  we already have the data about the floods, the bushfires, extreme cold, burning heat and even the dead birds. It’s all there. Panic and madness in the streets as people flee on trains to escape the outback’s deadly heat? Got that too.

Don’t mention the skeptics

As Newby admitted on ABC radio the idea of the show was to correct the “obfuscation”. So Catalyst was in the awkward position of responding to skeptical talking points, but without mentioning “skeptics” — not by name and not even to allude that they exist. So we know they’re trying to refute skeptics, but not with enough integrity to let the skeptics state their views.  It’s likely Newby has never read what the skeptics write, can’t quote them, and doesn’t understand their position. That’s not “reporting” — but rather acting as a marketing agent for one side (the government) against the independent, unpaid whistleblowers. It shows you that either the BOM and the ABC are afraid of rational discussion, or worse, that they “know” the answer, and it’s not up to the public to choose. If they knew they could answer skeptics questions in an honest debate, they wouldn’t be afraid to allow both sides to put their views forward.

Newby made a point of the BOM records, saying they have 112 thermometers that were blue chip and went back 100 years, so isn’t it cherry picking to focus on shorter periods? The independent auditors took only a few weeks to notice that the newest BOM account called “ACORN” includes many short records. Learmonth, for example, only goes back 37 years. Of the 112 Acorn sites , about one third have less than 80 years of daily data.

It would only take a science reporter a few minutes to find that online.

Jonica Newby and the Catalyst team even showed a Stephenson screen, up close and in detail, presumably to counter those pesky images of thermometers near air-conditioners, but without giving away that there are hundreds of thermometers in dubious locations whose photos are available online. They realize of course that if they mentioned that, people would just Google and find the darn photos. The dutiful ABC viewers are kept in the dark but inoculated in a sense, in case a skeptical link crosses their emails. How are those ABC viewers going to feel when they do see the photos that the ABC won’t report? I don’t think the inoculation will survive the bleeding obvious shots of thermometers above concrete and ashpalt,  near runways and jet aircraft or many other odd sites.

Weather is not climate — except when it is right?

Catalyst decided to break the old rule “weather is not climate”. They turned everything you see in your own backyard into potential clues that something unnatural is going on. Is it rainier, dryer, hotter, colder, cloudier, or sunnier, and  even “did you catch different fish this year”?

This is climate astrology: odd things will happen today in your backyard today. (The dark planet Carbonia is transiting your Finance Sector.) You may have to mop the floor.

Your electricity bills will mysterious rise.

Newby has done months of research on the wrong thing

Poor Jonica Newby doesn’t realize as she talks about the “greenhouse effect” that the physics is not the issue, it is mostly right, but only a small factor. From her radio interview about the program it’s clear she has no idea that feedbacks dominate the climate. Instead she’s obediently mimicking the climate activists strawman debate.

JONICA NEWBY:  …what that means – and it really took me months to come to grips with this myself, and I was in full immersion – but you think about it from a physics point of view: there’s a degree of extra heat in the whole weather system.

Now think of just the weather. That’s a lot of energy that’s in that system, so what it’s going to do…

MARK COLVIN: Heat is energy.

JONICA NEWBY: Heat is energy.

MARK COLVIN: It’s just basic physics.

JONICA NEWBY: Yeah, so basic physics tells you it’s going to be wilder…

Newby probably thinks skeptics deny the “basic physics” when that’s never been the case. She apparently doesn’t know the models she relies use dubious assumptions to amplify the basic physics into a catastrophe. She hasn’t done her research. If she had, she’d know the debate is not about the physics, but about the feedbacks. And it’s not that skeptics say there is no evidence, we’ve moved beyond that. There is evidence, and lots of it, from many independent angles suggests that feedbacks are negative, not positive, and the models are categorically wrong and are overestimating the predicted warming by a factor of 7 or so.

If she wants to stop skeptics getting traction she needs to understand skeptical arguments first. The only problem with that of course, is that if she dares to read the papers the skeptics suggest, she might realize they are asking questions her friends at the BOM don’t have any good answers too.

If Newby is a real reporter, she can start by asking the BOM some real questions.

PS: Note  to Jonica, “extra energy” doesn’t automatically generate “extra extremes”. This study shows that storms were worse during the Little Ice Age.  Ask us, we can explain why that might be.





Kokic, P., Crimp, S. and Howden, M. (2012) How probable is the recent run of record global mean temperatures without climate change? Environmetrics (submitted).

Catalyst: production notes

Catalyst Transcript


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