The Revolt of the Stenographers...
Yet More Historical Climate Blogging

in Which James Fallows Is a Frog Stepping into Global Warming Water Carrying a Hockey Stick...

James Fallows writes a very strange sentence indeed:

If this latest George Will opus [i.e., yet another misleading and mendacious column on global warming] serves to drive readers to [Richard] Muller's book [Physics for Future Presidents], it will have done some good...

Why does Fallows write this? Will's column does not contain any recommendation that anybody read [Richard] Muller's Physics for Future Presidents or indeed contain any of the words "Muller," "Richard," "physics," "future," or "presidents." (It does, however, contain the word "for.") How can it do any good along those lines?

Moreover, Richard Muller's current bottom line on global warming is opposed to Will's climate-change denialism. George Will says:

[R]egarding climate change, the U.S. government, rushing to impose unilateral cap-and-trade burdens on the sagging U.S. economy, looks increasingly like someone who bought a closetful of platform shoes and bell-bottom slacks just as disco was dying.

While Richard Muller says: The temperature of the Earth (averaged over the last decade) is now the warmest that it has been in 400 years. Figure 10.1 below shows the change since 1850 was almost 2°F (about 1oC). That doesn’t seem like a lot, and in some sense it isn’t. The reason some many people worry is that they fear that this is just a portent of what is to come. A substantial part of this rise is very likely a result of human activity, particularly by the burning of fossil fuels. If that is truly the cause, then we expect the temperature to keep rising. Although cheap oil is getting scarce, at $100 per barrel or higher there seems to be lots available. (I’ll show the numbers later in the chapter.) And the countries that need lots of energy appear to have huge amounts of coal. Burn a fossil fuel, and you dump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and that’s the problem. Carbon dioxide is very likely to cause significant warming, and as we burn more fossil fuels, the temperature is very likely to continue to go up. In the next 50 years, the best estimates are that the additional increase will be between 3°F and 10°F. That is a lot. Already, warming in Alaska from 1900 to the present has been enough to cause significant portions of the permafrost to melt. A 10°F rise would be enough to make fertile regions in the United States arid and trigger large-scale economic disruption around the world. There is also good reason to believe that the warming will be more intense in the polar regions...

The last time I talked to Richard about this, he said (correctly and accurately) that the real big problem is that if we want to stop the 5 to 15 degree rise in temperature by 2150--the rise that would turn much of America's current agricultural heartland into arid semi-desert--(and I think we do want to stop or at least attenuate it significantly), we need to very quickly convince China and India not to industrialize by burning carbon-based fuels, and they will naturally ask what's in it for them if they do so. There is a sense in which Richard is more of an alarmist than Al Gore: Gore thinks that if the U.S. embarks on a green path its moral authority and diplomatic leverage will then pull the rest of the world along as well. Richard fears that that is not the case.

Given that, I was surprised when I read what Fallows chose to emphasize from Richard's Physics for Future Presidents:

Compare-and-contrast reading on climate change: You can see the beginning of [Richard Muller's] dissection of Gore's famous "hockey stick" chart of rising temperatures, which begins on page 292 of Muller's book, through a Google book-search excerpt here. (The hockey stick, below)

Compare-and-contrast reading on climate change - James Fallows

I thought "oh boy." Fallows is going to get into trouble here...

And indeed he is. The frog is on the (global warming) water. And the temperature is rising rapidly.

Let me clear away some underbrush. First of all, it is Michael Mann and his coauthors' "hockey stick" figure, not Al Gore's. Second, the hockey stick shows a 0.5F rise in temperatures between 1900 and 1950 and a 1.3F rise between 1900 and 2000--only 1/5 as large as the rise we are currently projecting under business-as-usual by 2100 and only 1/8 as large as the business-as-usual rise projected for 2150. Third, in global warming scientific uncertainty is not our friend. Scientific uncertainty leads us to do more rather than less than we would do if we knew that the midpoint of current projections accurately described how the world works.

Now, on to the main course: about the "hockey stick" nature of the black line, wikipedia reports:

Hockey stick controversy: In a letter to Nature on August 10, 2006, Bradley, Hughes and Mann pointed at the original title of their 1998 article: "Northern Hemisphere temperatures during the past millennium: inferences, uncertainties, and limitations" and pointed out "more widespread high-resolution data are needed before more confident conclusions can be reached and that the uncertainties were the point of the article." Mann and his colleagues said that it was "hard to imagine how much more explicit" they could have been about the uncertainties surrounding their work and blaming "poor communication by others" for the "subsequent confusion"...

The hockey stick graph has an explicit range of uncertainty around its black central estimate line: the range of uncertainty is provided by the grey. The hockey stick figure itself tells us that it is very possible that the world was warmer back in the Medieval Warm Period than it was in 1950, that it was likely that it was almost as warm, and that any differences in average global temperatures between 1950 and the Middle Ages one way or another are in the tenths of degrees. That seems to be right to me. (I tend to think that the Medieval Warm Period was relatively warm: in the Middle Ages they grew grapes and made wine in England, and not because sea transport from France was impossible--the stone for the walls of Norwich Castle comes from Normandy: if you can transport stone across the English Channel and through the North Sea you can transport wine. They didn't grow wine grapes in England during the Little Ice Age.)

So what, exactly, is Muller's critique of Mann's hockey stick that impressed Fallows?

I went to the Google Books link Fallows provided, and found that while Muller's pages 292 and 293 were on Google Books, pages 294-6 were not--the Google Books available section picks up on page 297, with the graph of carbon dioxide concentrations vs. temperatures since 600,000 BC. The dissection was not available. So I dropped down to U.C. Berkeley, and found the selected chapters of the textbook version of Muller's book (Google Books has the mass market version) online I quickly found the Paleoclimate CO2-temperature figure that is on page 297 of the mass market book: "Climate (and carbon dioxide) for the past 600,000 years." But I could not find the "hockey stick" figure, or any discussion of climate in the twentieth century relative to climate in the Medieval Warm Period.

UPDATE: Sure enough, Fallows got into trouble.

He responds with a link to a "opinions on shape of earth differ" website and a link to the intelligent and reliable Center for American Progress website, which is a version of "some say the earth is round, others say opinions on shape of earth differ" journalism--not as bad as "opinions on shape of earth differ" journalism, but not good. He responds with promises to respond later, and with quotes from Joseph Romm (who didn't like Muller's book's sections on climate change at all), from a reader "P.J.", from "a Berkeley colleague" (not me!) who says that Richard is "by no means the most authoritative research on climate change available, even on the Berkeley campus. Like Al Gore, he has now become a popularizer, and that task has inherent risks," and from Al Gore's office. On the last, Fallows writes:

Climate pushback #1, from Al Gore's office and others: Finally, a representative of Al Gore's office in Tennessee wrote to object that I had not contacted them before quoting a passage from Muller's book critical of Inconvenient Truth -- and to clarify the origin of the much-debated "hockey stick" chart used in that book and movie. The version of that chart that has been most heavily questioned, including by Muller, is from a scientist whose name I'll leave out right now, since I'm not going to the trouble of contacting him at the moment. According to Al Gore's representative:

The graph that former Vice President Gore refers to in An Inconvenient Truth (which you can verify on pages 63, 64 and 65) was produced by Dr. Lonnie Thompson, one of the country's top glaciologists, not the image that you published in your article...I'd urge you to speak with Dr. Thompson--he was awarded the National Medal of Science by President George W. Bush in 2007--our nation's highest honor for science...

Alas! Al Gore's office is wrong! The figure at issue is indeed in a paper by Thompson et al., but the figure in Thompson's paper is a copy of Michael Mann's figure--Mann being "the scientist whose name [Fallows] will leave out for the moment." Figure 7 in Thompson et al. plots (i) ice cores from South America, (ii) ice cores from Tibet, (iii) average ice cores, and (iv) Mann's estimates. Like this: Thompson, L.G., E. Mosley-Thompson, M.E. Davis, P.-N. Lin, K. Henderson and T.A. Mashiotta. 2002. Tropical glacier and ice core evidence of climate change on annual to millennial time scales. Climatic Change, 59, 137-155.

The point I draw from all this is that Mann et al.'s tree rings look a lot like Thompson et al.'s ice cores. And that Muller's critique of Mann's hockey stick (whatever it might have been) is probably out-of-date--hence not in the "climate" chapter of the textbook for the current version of the course "Physics for Future Presidents."