Sitting on low simmer, it’s hard to notice the difference

It’s hard to spot the wheelbarrow for the straw, or the climate for the weather. Which is why we need science and its time-honoured method. [22 February 2011 | Peter Boyer]

Warming Earth: overlapping lines show similar results from independent data analysis in three different countries.

Warming Earth: overlapping lines show similar results from independent data analysis in three different countries.

There’s a well-worn joke about a bloke coming off a ship carting straw in a wheelbarrow. The customs officer senses something’s amiss and searches the straw, but without success.

The scene is repeated again and again: countless barrow-loads and fruitless searches, going on for years and ending only when the customs man retires. Meeting his nemesis in the pub one day, he buys the man a beer and asks what he was smuggling. Answer: wheelbarrows.

There’s a wheelbarrow problem in climate change. We get an inkling something’s not right and look for evidence in the daily weather. It’s the obvious thing to do; we’ve done it every day since long before we came down from the trees.

The weather might be sunny or showery (much like this summer in Tasmania), or dry, hot and smoky, or blowing a gale, or awash with rain, or burying us under snow. Each day it shouts its message to us, and what we see shapes our thoughts and moods and plans.

Our suspicions are aroused if the weather produces a record drought or flood or storm, but that’s not the norm. Most days pass without incident, and we wonder how we could ever have thought anything was wrong. Having found nothing in the straw, we give up looking.

We can’t spend our whole time worrying about the future. We all have lives to live — jobs to do, children to raise, mortgages to pay — which means switching off from all that blather and attending to the here and now.

In our civilised state we’ve learned to delegate tasks to specialists, people whose job it is to get to know a particular problem in all its forms and how to fix it. We have specialist tradespeople, medical experts, masters of finance. And scientists.

How the world has warmed since 1970: maps prepared by NASA's Goddard Institute

How the world has warmed since 1970: maps prepared by NASA's Goddard Institute

Scientists are a bit of a special case. Unlike a lot of other specialists, scientists are expected to share knowledge. Not only that, the scientific method obliges them to lay on the table how they got that knowledge: all the physical evidence and thought processes involved in reaching their conclusions.

We expect that from our scientists. Look at the fuss last year over the “Climategate” emails, which hackers claimed showed that scientists had withheld important information from the public and skewed their findings. The claims were shown to be wrong, but that shouldn’t stop us being vigilant. It matters that science and scientists are above board.

So we delegated the investigation of our climate to specialist chemists, physicists, geologists, biologists and modellers, among others. Over decades, increasing numbers of these people have struggled to get a handle on the state of our planet. They’ve concluded that we have a problem, and not just any old problem but the mother of them all.

They continue to work on it. In the early months of 2011 scientists at five institutions on three continents are labouring over vast masses of data from all points of the globe, simply to ascertain how our planet’s surface temperatures are changing.

“Simply” suggests it’s easy; it isn’t. Assessing weather data from thousands of points around the planet—from land stations everywhere, and from polar research bases, remote automatic weather stations, ships, buoys and satellites—is just the tip of an iceberg. Behind the data are decades of effort to build and modify the intellectual tools for handling the analysis.

You can get a hint of the complexities of this task at the websites of the various research institutions involved, whose names are listed below, and in a downloadable December 2010 research paper by a team from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies — a model of scientific transparency.

Now to the outcomes. Both the Japanese Meteorological Agency and the joint output of two UK institutions — the Met Office Hadley Centre and the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit — have 1998 fractionally ahead of last year, 2010, as the warmest year since global records began in the 19th century.

Two venerable US institutions, NASA’s Goddard Institute and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), beg to differ. They independently concluded that 2010 tied with 2005 as the warmest year on record, with 1998 lying third according to NCDC or a distant sixth behind 2007, 2009 and 2002 according to Goddard.

The differences tell us that the science investigating our climate isn’t some monolithic edifice, but multiple outcomes from widely-scattered groups, cooperating when necessary but employing their own independent techniques for making sense of our climate.

At the same time, the correlation between the outputs of the respective institutions is very clear. Both the UK Met Office and the Goddard Institute have compiled composite graphs showing the outcomes from different organisations.

The feature of the plot-lines isn’t their divergence but their overlap — and their continuing upward trend. Whatever else may be said, at least we can agree that the world continues to warm.

Climate change and the communion of saints will be the subject of a presentation at St Georges Church, Battery Point, starting at 7.30 pm on Friday. Rev. Prof. Michael Northcott, Professor of Ethics at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Divinity, will discuss the role of religion in addressing the threat from climate change. Call 62202020 for more information.

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