Scientific American article: “How to Misinterpret Climate Change Research”

Originally a guest post on Apr 24, 2015 – 6:26 AM at Climate Audit

A Scientific American article concerning Bjorn Stevens’ recent paper “Rethinking the lower bound on aerosol radiative forcing” has led to some confusion. The article states, referring to a blog post of mine at Climate Audit, “The misinterpretation of Stevens’ paper began with Nic Lewis, an independent climate scientist.”. My blog post showed how climate sensitivity estimates given in Lewis and Curry (2014) (LC14) would change if the estimate for aerosol forcing from Stevens’ recent paper were used instead of the estimate thereof given in the IPCC 5th Assessment Working Group 1 report (AR5 WG1). To clarify, Bjorn Stevens has never suggested that my blog post misinterpreted or misrepresented his paper.

The article also states, paraphrasing rather than quoting, “Lewis had used an extremely rudimentary, some would even say flawed, climate model to derive his estimates, Stevens said.” LC14 used a simple energy budget climate model, described in AR5 WG1, to estimate equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) from estimates of climate system changes over the last 150 years or so. An essentially identical method was used to estimate ECS in Otto et al (2013), a paper of which Bjorn Stevens was an author, along with thirteen other AR5 WG1 lead authors (and myself). Energy budget models actually estimate an approximation to ECS, effective climate sensitivity, not ECS itself, which some people may regard as a flaw. AR5 WG1 states that “In some climate models ECS tends to be higher than the effective climate sensitivity”; this is certainly true. Since the climate system takes many centuries to equilibrate, it is not known whether or not this is the case in the real climate system. LC14 discussed the issues involved in some detail, and my Climate Audit blog post referred to estimating “equilibrium/effective climate sensitivity”.

I sent Bjorn Stevens a copy of the above wording and he has responded, saying the following:

“Dear Nic,

because I have reservations about estimates of ocean heat uptake used in the ‘energy-balance approaches’, and because of a number of issues (which you allude to) regarding differences between effective climate sensitivity estimates from the historical record and ECS, I am not ready to draw the inference from my study that ECS is low. That said, I do think what you write in the two paragraphs above is a fair characterization of the situation and of your important contributions to the scientific debate. The Ringberg meeting also made me confident that the open issues are ones we can resolve in the next few years.

Feel free to quote me on this.

Best wishes, Bjorn”

Update 26 April 2015

Gayathri Vaidyanathan tells me that the article has been changed at ClimateWire . Certainly, the title has been changed, and I presume the text has been amended per the version she sent me, which no longer suggests misinterpretation. But Scientific American is still showing the original version, so the situation is not very satisfactory.

Update 28 April 2015

The text of the article has now been changed at Scientific American, although the title is unaltered. The sentence referring to misinterpretation now reads “Stevens’ paper was analyzed by Nic Lewis, an independent climate scientist.*” At the foot of the article is the note:

Correction: A previous version of this story did not accurately reflect Lewis’ work. Lewis used Stevens’ study in an analysis that was used by some media outlets to throw doubt on global warming.

By | 2018-04-18T21:22:22+00:00 April 18th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

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