Over the past few months, since I first encountered Christopher Monckton, I’ve tried to figure out why anyone would believe him. Is it the posh accent, the hereditary title, the Latin phrases peppering his speeches? Because it isn’t always the sort of people you might think would buy his lines; I have encountered some very intelligent Moncktonites. I’ve come to believe part of the answer is that Monckton is a master of appealing to “common sense“.
People like to believe they can usually bluff their way to correct conclusions using a combination of “things that everyone knows” and basic reasoning skills, and maybe sometimes that’s true. You shouldn’t always knock the collective wisdom of the ages, I suppose. But the fact is that “common sense” has a rather dismal record in some areas, because what passes for “collective wisdom” is often just prejudice, and even basic reasoning skills are likely to fail to the extent that they operate on an incomplete or erroneous set of information. In his book, The Unnatural Nature of Science: Why Science Does Not Make (Common) Sense, the prominent British biologist, Lewis Wolpert, made the point that science has a history of defying common sense. The crux of the matter seems to be that while scientists generally try to craft their explanations to be consistent with all the data they can gather that seems relevant, and consistent with other scientific explanations, most people are comparatively lax about fact-gathering and consistency. When we make the extra effort to investigate things “scientifically,” it often turns out that we have to explain some pretty surprising phenomena, and the explanations required tend to defy “common sense.” (Anyone who doubts this has obviously never studied quantum mechanics and relativity.)
Lord Monckton’s modus operandi seems to be to supply the public with woefully inadequate or simply erroneous information, and let common sense do the rest. I recently ran across a stunning example of this strategy in a piece written by Monckton entitled “The Climate Bugaboo is the Strangest Intellectual Aberration of Our Age“. The point of this article, published in The Telegraph, seems to be that the idea that human-induced climate change might be a problem is so obviously false that it can only be explained as a bizarre “intellectual aberration”.
What is it, exactly, that strikes Monckton as so strange? Here’s how he began his essay.
“But don’t you realise,” said the bearded, staring enviro-zomb with the regrettable T-shirt, “that global cooling is what we must expect because of global warming?”
“Don’t you realise,” I replied, “how silly that sounds? The lowest temperatures ever recorded here in Cancun six days in a row; four extreme winters on the trot in the Northern hemisphere; more people dying in one three-day cold snap in little England in 2002 than Oxfam pretends died of ‘global warming’ worldwide throughout 2010; where’s your perspective, man?”
There you have it–Monckton’s sole exemplar of anthropogenic climate change as an intellectual phenomenon is a stray comment by some sweaty hippie he supposedly met at the expo in Cancun. Regardless of what this person may (or may not) have said, I can at least guess what he was trying to get across. Ready? If the global average temperature rises, then weather patterns will shift, so that some localities might actually cool, while most localities would be heating up. Honestly, is that really so hard to understand? And if any reasonably intelligent person could comprehend this point, why would Monckton bring up cold snaps in a couple places and a few “extreme winters” in the Northern Hemisphere, when “global climate change” refers to what the entire globe is doing, averaged over a number of years (usually 20-30)?
This has been explained to Lord Monckton many times, but he just keeps on lobbing out statistic after statistic about 1) local climate variations and/or 2) time periods too short to be relevant to “climate”. This is an effective (if unscrupulous) strategy because “common sense” is really only good with respect to things that are part of common human experience, but humans don’t experience the “global average” climate. They only experience what goes on in the particular location they inhabit. Monckton went on,
In the me and now, even eminent professors lack perspective. Last week one such wrote to the Daily Telegraph to say that Roger Helmer, the jovial Tory MEP, ought not to have gone to Cancun for the latest big-carbon-footprint UN climate junket. Instead, said the Prof, Mr Helmer should have used the time learning that “global warming” of 0.7C in a single century was unprecedented in the last 600,000 years.
No. As Mr Helmer wrote in his reply, 11,400 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age, temperatures in Antarctica rose by 5C in just three years. That’s global warming. Thermometers in central England showed warming of 2.2C during just 40 years from 1695-1735 – eight times faster than 20th-century warming.
I wasn’t able to find the letter from the “eminent professor” (of what?) or Mr. Helmer’s reply, but let’s just take a look at the “facts” Monckton uses. First, I already addressed Monckton’s use of the Central England Temperature (CET) record in a previous blog post. The gist is that it has been shown time and again that you can’t substitute a local record for the global average, because wind patterns, etc., can easily shift around so that a given local climate can vary much more than the global average. Here is the graph I showed to illustrate this point.
The same can be said about Monckton’s reference to Antarctic temperatures–it’s not directly comparable to the global average–but that’s not the only problem, here. When I first read Monckton’s claim about Antarctic temperatures, I was quite surprised, because I didn’t think you could date 11,400 year old ice core data accurately enough to say what happened during a 3-year period. And I was right.
The basic idea is that ice accumulates on glaciers like the antarctic ice sheet, a layer each year, and you can estimate the air temperature in the area at a given time by measuring the ratios of different hydrogen and oxygen isotopes in the ice that represents the snowfall from that time period. If you want to learn a little bit about ice cores, there’s a pretty good Wikipedia article on the subject. Here’s the section on how the ice layers at different levels in the core are assigned ages.
Shallow cores, or the upper parts of cores in high-accumulation areas, can be dated exactly by counting individual layers, each representing a year. These layers may be visible, related to the nature of the ice; or they may be chemical, related to differential transport in different seasons; or they may be isotopic, reflecting the annual temperature signal (for example, snow from colder periods has less of the heavier isotopes of H and O). Deeper into the core the layers thin out due to ice flow and high pressure and eventually individual years cannot be distinguished. It may be possible to identify events such as nuclear bomb atmospheric testing’s radioisotope layers in the upper levels, and ash layers corresponding to known volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions may be detected by visible ash layers, acidic chemistry, or electrical resistance change. Some composition changes are detected by high-resolution scans of electrical resistance. Lower down the ages are reconstructed by modeling accumulation rate variations and ice flow.
Dating is a difficult task. Five different dating methods have been used for Vostok cores, with differences such as 300 years at 100 m depth, 600yr at 200 m, 7000yr at 400 m, 5000yr at 800 m, 6000yr at 1600 m, and 5000yr at 1934 m.
Different dating methods makes comparison and interpretation difficult. Matching peaks by visual examination of Moulton and Vostok ice cores suggests a time difference of about 10,000 years but proper interpretation requires knowing the reasons for the differences.
Did you catch the part about how using different dating methods leads to differences of hundreds of years at depths as little as 100 m? How many years back, approximately, is represented by a few hundred m of ice core in Vostok (which is in Antarctica)? According to this page on the NOAA website, the part of the core dated to about 11,400 years is more than 300 m deep! If you get hundreds of years difference by using different dating methods on ice that deep, how can you possibly be sure of what happened in a 3-year period?
Another thing I happen to know about ice core work is that it takes time and money to analyze samples from the core, so every single millimeter of the core is typically not analyzed. For example, in this “high resolution” data set from the EPICA Dome C core in Antarctica, the core was sampled every 0.55 m, which represents time steps of about 20 years at depths representative of about 11,000 years ago. What’s more, if you look at the data from the very top of the core you will find that the age model they used assigned an age of -50 years to the first sample. In other words, the snow on top was from 50 years in the future. I’m thinking that Monckton’s dream of accuracy to within 3 years at 11,400 years is a bit unrealistic.
It may be that someone, somewhere, has sampled an antarctic ice core at higher resolution in the area representing about 11,400 years ago (Monckton doesn’t say where his data came from,) but even if they have, they would have measured hydrogen and oxygen isotope ratios to estimate temperatures, and since some diffusion of these isotopes happens in the ice pack, I would still have a hard time believing that the data is good enough to tell us what went on in a 3-year period that long ago.
Now, I’m not telling you all this to knock the science of glaciology. It’s just that different types of data are good for answering different types of questions, and in this case it seems clear that Monckton is trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip. But even if I turn out to be wrong about this, Monckton would STILL be trying to directly compare temperature variation at a SINGLE LOCATION with variation in the global average.
[UPDATE: Down in the comments, Coby pointed out that Monckton may have been referring instead to the end of the Younger Dryas, which was mostly centered around the North Atlantic, rather than Antarctica. (Note that neither the Vostok nor the EPICA Dome C ice core data show any big warming event around 11,000-12,000 years ago.) Apparently, high resolution isotope measurements on some Greenland ice cores suggest that several degrees of warming took place in just a few years there. The GISP2 core is a decent example–the data from around 11,600 years ago shows several degrees of warming over a few decades. Even here the time steps between samples are at least 15 years, though, so I still haven’t tracked down where the 3-year figure came from. In any case, this serves to illustrate my point that big changes can occur in a single location, while at the same time the global average doesn’t change nearly so much. And if Monckton really was referring to events in Greenland, rather than Antarctica, it’s worth noting that he has a history of mistaking Greenland for the entire globe.]
[UPDATED UPDATE: A glaciologist pal just got back from Antarctica, where she was drilling ice core. I asked her what kind of resolution you could get at Younger Dryas depths in Greenland ice core, and she said you could get resolutions of one or maybe a few years. Greenland has a much greater snow accumulation rate than Antarctica, so you can actually count the annual ice layers further down. Anyway, so my initial reaction about the possible temporal resolution in ice core may have been right for Antarctica, but was wrong for Greenland.]
So it appears that Lord Monckton is comparing apples to oranges, and in any case, he doesn’t appear to know how to properly interpret the apples. And so I ask you, which is the greater “intellectual aberration”? Is it the idea that the global average temperature can rise while some local temperatures fall? Or is it Monckton’s appeal to the “common sense” notion that climate change should be the same everywhere?
I should mention one more point, as well. Let’s suppose Monckton is right that there was a 5 °C jump in temperature during a 3-year period about 11,400 years ago in Antarctica, and that this local change was indicative of a similarly enormous shift in the global average temperature. Well, that would mean that the climate is ENORMOUSLY SENSITIVE. Just a tiny change in the forcing would amount to a ridiculously large change in the global average temperature–even larger than the IPCC projects for its worst-case scenarios. And yet, much of Lord Monckton’s energy is spent trying to convince people that the climate system is rather INSENSITIVE to small changes in the forcing. Like I said, “most people are comparatively lax about fact-gathering and consistency.”