Data : the key to the Climate Change debate ?

Over the next week or so the media will be full of stories from Copenhagen as the world’s leader fly into the city for United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP-15. There will no doubt be limited progress towards agreeing to reduce greenhouse gases emissions globally, getting international governments to agree on anything is difficult, and to agree on making such potentially major changes to their economies is difficult despite the dire consequences of doing nothing.

The debate is not helped by lingering doubts among many people that climate change itself is no more than a liberal conspiracy or at least there is little evidence to support that mankind and increased CO2 emissions are actually responsible for the changes.

Of both sides of the arguments there are powerful interest bodies, who are actively working on providing their interpretations to the evidence without necessarily being fair and open minded, even respected academics it appears have felt it necessary to manipulate information to fit their world view.

Ultimately if we are to get politicians to act with conviction on this matter, they need to believe it is something for which there will be a domestic political cost for not doing so, and this only results from the issue becoming something that the mainstream population has a firmly held opinion of.

Unfortunately people have lost confidence is both politicians and I’m afraid scientists to provide unbiased analysis of data on Climate Change, perhaps we now need to better educate people as to how to look at climate change data themselves  and to make this data available without spin or interpretation so that people can make their own minds up.

Last week I visited the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission in Ispra, Italy and meet with some scientists who are analysing greenhouse gas emission data over the last 25 years. The EDGAR project latest analysis is to try provide a granular map of the distribution of greenhouse gas emissions which they have visualised using Google Earth.

This is no doubt a powerful image, and an interesting talking point to the debate, but it is also the results of a model, a manipulation of raw data to paint a picture.

edgar-europe

There is of course nothing wrong with this, as it makes a particular point, and because in this case the  raw data behind the analysis as well as the well documented model are also easily accessible for bedroom scientists to analyse themselves.

And before any climate scientists out there claim that this is ridiculous and that the general public cannot be expected to deal with such complex tools and concepts, ask a surveyor or cartographer if they expected that the general public would be building the only detailed global digital maps a few years ago ?

Written and submitted from my home (51.425N, 0.331W)

12 comments

  1. Chris Hill (twitter: @chillly)

    Interesting points. The Climategate stuff has just pointed out how afraid climate scientists are about the sceptics, not because they are right, but because of the power of the herd to ignore an unpalatable truth. Now the politicians are taking the scientists seriously and beginning to act, it seems the public mistrust of politicians is transferring to climate scientists too.

    One of these detailed global digital maps is OpenStreetMap – a link would have been nice, so here it is: http://openstreetmap.org

  2. gogeo

    Interesting post Ed. Most scientists strive to be unbiased but there are always a few that lean towards a certain argument. In many cases it is the press that cause problems for the scientist by sensatialising certain parts of a paper in order to sell news papers. Not everyone understands climate change enough to read and understand the papers on it. I believe it is a failing of the scientific community to make scientific results accessible and understandable. Relying on the press to pass on your findings clearly does not work and can undermine your work.

    However, there is a huge stramash in the glaciological community at the moment. This centres around Himalayan glaciers disappearing by 2035. Unfortunately this appears to have been a typo and should have read 2350 or something. But the date has made it into lots of papers including the IPCC WG II paper.

    Mistakes happen, especially when you are pushing research forward, science needs to try to limit mistakes and make itself easier to understand. Copenhagen should be interesting.

  3. Peter Miller

    Can I suggest that the bedroom scientists put the following into their computers:-

    Firstly, that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was stable at between 0.00026 and 0.00028% before we started adding to it at the beginning of the industrial age and that it is now about about 0.00038% (about 40% higher); that we are adding some 27 gigatonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere each year which is increasing the concentration by 3% a year and that the rate of release is still rising.[1] This can easily be modeled in a spreadsheet and tested with different amounts of gases emitted being emitted in each of the forthcoming years.

    People might also like to model what will happen if various other chemicals that are locked away in the permafrost and under the sea are released as the earth reaches a warming ‘tipping point’ due to our actions; chemicals that are estimated to be powerful enough to increase the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by over 10 times, including 11,000 gigatonnes of methane clathrates. Some scientists believe that we are very close to the temperature when these other greenhouse gases would be released with devastating consequences.[2]

    This future greenhouse gas model is very simple and can be made using a spreadsheet in minutes. Different tipping points can be used to model what happens when these other chemicals get released. As a result of making this model some years ago I am now working hard to help develop ways of living where we can dramatically reduce our emissions.

    Incidentally the scientific community consensus is still that climate change is a very real and serious issue despite what the skeptics say.[3] I have investigated the skeptics claims that this whole thing is nonsense recently and find their arguments very unconvincing.

    All my references are to well sourced article on Wikipedia produced by the general public, some of whom where probably in their bedrooms – the references from these articles are mainly to high quality professional sources produced by people who were probably not in their bedrooms.

    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_dioxide_in_Earth%27s_atmosphere
    [2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Runaway_climate_change
    [3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_warming_consensus

  4. gogeo

    Pete, that is interesting but can it deal with the change in the greenhouse effect and the change in the surface albedo as vegetation adapts much like the simple “DaisyWorld” model?

    The melting of Siberian permafrost is a huge worry a it would result in large quantities of CO2 being released. That would increase the atmospheric content in a very short period of time which could have a profound effect on climate.

    The point i forgot to mention in my comment was that the simple typo by the scientist has allowed the press to say that the scientists results were wrong and that Himalayan glaciers are defying climate change. Unfortunately, while some of the Himalayan glaciers are not melting as fast as once thought, many are and the presence of huge supra-glacial and en-glacial lakes is a worry for those living in the valleys.

    Science must be squeaky clean as its results will be attacked and misinterpreted by climate skeptics. Just look at what is going on at UAE http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/norfolk/8389727.stm

  5. BrianSJ

    It does seem clear that the major data sources at CRU and GISS are in something of a state and need a proper reconstruction. A google earth mashup would be a great way of locating stations (over time), identifying urban heat islands etc, and getting a picture of regional max/min temps over different time intervals. If the data gets released, it would be a very good way of crowdsourcing the re-analysis.

  6. Peter Miller

    This sounds interesting….

    5 Dec 2009: “The Met Office has written to 188 countries for permission to publish material, dating back 160 years from more than 1,000 weather stations around the world, which it says proves climate change is caused by humans. Its database is a main source of analysis for the UN’s climate change science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which joins talks next week at the long-awaited Copenhagen summit. John Mitchell, head of climate science at the Met Office, told the BBC the evidence for man-made global warming was overwhelming – and the planned release of data would show that. “So this is not an issue of whether we are confident or not in the figures for the trend in global warming, it’s more about being open and transparent,” he said.
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8396696.stm

  7. Harsha Vardhan

    Ed! The most meaningful part of all this discussion is just the title 🙂

    More to just visualising the Climate Data sets .. there is a harder part that we have always being talking out ‘Data Sharing’. This is one of the points that I have seen hard core Climate Scientists/ climatologists (from the meteo and ocean communities) and the other bounded ones like (agriculture, water resources et al.) are talking of.

    The later ones have always been an integral part of GI and thus were always discussed under the SDI’s and the related data sharing issues. However, the surprising move I see in India is that this issue of data sharing has always been ignored for a lot of the time. However, there is a hope with the new data policy that will be on the plates in the next month and this outcome mandating ‘Data Sharing’ and I got this message that the issue of climate change was able to break those clutches.

    Still this is on policy mode – and I hope to see some real progress interms of sharing of (geospatial)data that is central to the core issue – The Climate Change.

    Would like to hear from my alien-geo-spatial friends on similar aspects.

  8. Pingback: Data the key to the climate change debate : Part 2 | edparsons.com
  9. maning

    Climate change related data (raw and not only processed data) is too important to be in the hands of only a few academics. Sure we still need scientist to provide meaningful interpretation, but given proper tools, bedroom scientists can provide new insights in novel and unexpected ways.

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