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Dr. Victor Venema


Dr. Victor Venema

Contact

Meteorological institute
University of Bonn
Auf dem Huegel 20
53121 Bonn, Germany

Email: Victor.Venema@uni-bonn.de




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Publications

Date Publication
15.11.2007 Article: Two adaptive radiative transfer schemes for numerical weather prediction models
V. Venema, A. Schomburg, F. Ament, and C. Simmer
Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 7, 5659-5674
SRef: 1680-7324/acp/2007-7-5659
12.09.2006 Article: Statistical characteristics of surrogate data based on geophysical measurements
V. Venema, S. Bachner, H. W. Rust, and C. Simmer
Nonlinear Processes in Geophysics, 13, 449-466
SRef: 1607-7946/npg/2006-13-449
26.07.2006 Article: A Stochastic Iterative Amplitude Adjusted Fourier Transform algorithm with improved accuracy
V. Venema, F. Ament, and C. Simmer
Nonlinear Processes in Geophysics, 13, 321-328
SRef: 1607-7946/npg/2006-13-321

Latest Blog Posts

  • 21.08.2017: Germany weather service to open up its data

    Some good news from Germany. The government has decided to make the data of the German weather service (DWD) freely available for all. This comes after a parliamentary hearing in April on a bill to make the data freely available. All but one expert at the hearing were positive about this change.

    Data was mostly already free for research, but really free data still helps science a lot. If data is only free for research that means that you have to sign a contract. For a global study that means 200 contracts, in the best case where all countries do this, in the local language with hard to find contact persons, with different conditions each time and often only a part of the data. If the data is really free, you can automatically download it, create regional and global collections, enrich them with additional information, add value with data processing (homogenisation, quality control, extremes, etc.) and publish them for everyone to use. It would also make the data streams more transparent.

    This move was aided by the resolution of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) calling on its members, the weather services, to free their data:
    Strengthen their commitment to the free and unrestricted exchange of [Global Framework for Climate Services] GFCS relevant data and products;

    Increase the volume of GFCS relevant data and products accessible to meet the needs for implementation of the GFCS and the requirements of the GFCS partners;
    Unfortunately, there still is no legally binding require to share the data. The weather services cannot force their governments to do so, but the resolution makes it clear that governments refusing to open the data are hurting their people.




    There is also a downside, the German weather service, [[Deutscher Wetterdienst]] (DWD), currently earns about 3.5 million Euro selling data. In perspective that is about 1 percent of their 305 million Euro budget. (The DWD earns about 20% of their budget themselves and thus costs only 3 Euro per citizen per year.)

    Because of these earnings many weather services are reluctant to open up their data. Especially in poorer countries these earnings can be a considerable part of the budget. On the other hand, the benefits to society of open data are sure to be much higher. Because of more people and companies will actually use the data and because better data products can be produced. When it comes to climate data I hope that the international climate negotiations can free the data in return for funding for the observational networks of poorer countries.

    The main problem in Germany are, optimistically were, the commercial weather services. They fear competition, both from the DWD themselves and because free data lowers the barrier to entry for other companies to start offering better services. These companies have been so successful that a long time it was even forbidden for the DWD to publish their weather predictions on their homepage. Weather prediction the DWD still had to make because it is their job to warn for dangerous weather. That was an enormous destruction of value created with taxpayer money to create an artificial market for (often worse quality) weather predictions.

    There is a similar problem where commercial media companies have succeeded in limiting the time that public broadcasting organisations can make their information available for watching/listening/download. This destruction of public capital is still ongoing.

    Good that for weather and climate data common sense has won in Germany. Only a small number of countries have made their data fully open, but I have the impression that there is a trend. It would be great if someone would track this, if only to create more pressure to open the data holdings.

    Related reading

    Link to the DWD open data portal.

    German parliament press office: Experts endorse free provision of weather service data. In German: Experten befürworten entgeltfreies Angebot der Wetterdienst-Wetterdaten.

    Free our climate data - from Geneva to Paris.

    Congress of the World Meteorological Organization, free our climate data.
    Source: Variable Variability

  • 03.08.2017: Ottmar Edenhofer in 2010 on international climate politics and redistribution of wealth

    If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.
    Cardinal Richelieu (or his circle)




    [[Ottmar Georg Edenhofer]] (born in 1961 in Germany) currently holds the professorship of the Economics of Climate Change at the Technical University of Berlin. He is deputy director and chief economist of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). From 2008 to 2015 he served as one of the co-chairs of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group III "Mitigation of Climate Change".
    Some hold the view that climate scientists are conspiring against humanity to bring down capitalism. (Not so sure whether a natural science is the best place to start the biggest, longest, global conspiracy, whether an abstract, slow and distributed environmental problem is the best way to motivate people, whether an economic sector whose business model is political corruption is the easiest one to topple, nor whether using another energy source would change capitalism.)

    As evidence they occasionally cherry pick from an article by Ottmar Edenhofer, then the co-chairman of Working Group III on solving climate change (mitigation) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He was describing the political reality and explained why "the owners of coal and oil are not enthusiastic" about fighting climate change when he wrote: "We redistribute de facto the world’s wealth by climate politics."

    The quote comes from an interview in the Swiss Newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung. So I can use my comparative advantage of knowing a little German. Fortunately people in Switzerland merely speak Swiss German, Schwyzerdütsch, they write standard German, Hochdeutsch, which is hard enough for a poor Dutch natural scientist.

    This is the key part of the NZZ interview with Ottmar Edenhofer in 2010:
    Grundsätzlich ist es ein grosser Fehler, Klimapolitik abgetrennt von den grossen Themen der Globalisierung zu diskutieren. Der Klimagipfel in Cancún Ende des Monats ist keine Klimakonferenz, sondern eine der grössten Wirtschaftskonferenzen seit dem Zweiten Weltkrieg. Warum? Weil wir noch 11 000 Gigatonnen Kohlenstoff in den Kohlereserven unter unseren Füssen haben – und wir dürfen nur noch 400 Gigatonnen in der Atmosphäre ablagern, wenn wir das 2-Grad-Ziel halten wollen. 11 000 zu 400 – da führt kein Weg daran vorbei, dass ein Grossteil der fossilen Reserven im Boden bleiben muss.

    De facto ist das eine Enteignung der Länder mit den Bodenschätzen. Das führt zu einer ganz anderen Entwicklung als der, die bisher mit Entwicklungspolitik angestossen wurde.

    Zunächst mal haben wir Industrieländer die Atmosphäre der Weltgemeinschaft quasi enteignet. Aber man muss klar sagen: Wir verteilen durch die Klimapolitik de facto das Weltvermögen um. Dass die Besitzer von Kohle und Öl davon nicht begeistert sind, liegt auf der Hand. Man muss sich von der Illusion freimachen, dass internationale Klimapolitik Umweltpolitik ist. Das hat mit Umweltpolitik, mit Problemen wie Waldsterben oder Ozonloch, fast nichts mehr zu tun.
    I would translate that as:
    Fundamentally, it is a big mistake to discuss climate politics separately from the big issues of globalization. The climate summit in Cancún at end of the month is not a climate conference, but one of the largest economic conferences since the Second World War. Why? Because we have 11,000 gigatons of carbon in the coal reserves under our feet – and we can only add 400 gigatons more to the atmosphere if we want to stay within the 2 °C target. 11,000 to 400 – we have to face the fact that a large part of the fossil reserves must remain in the ground.

    De facto, this is the expropriation of the countries with these natural resources. This leads to an entirely different development than the one that has been initiated with development policy.

    First of all, we as industrialized countries have quasi expropriated the atmosphere of the world community. But one must explicitly say: We de facto redistribute the world’s wealth due to climate politics. That the owners of coal and oil are not enthusiastic about this is obvious. One has to free oneself from the illusion that international climate politics is environmental politics. This has almost nothing to do any more with environmental politics, [as is was with] with problems such as deforestation or the ozone hole.
    That is a wordy way of saying that climate policies have large economic implications and that these impact different countries differently. Economics is more important for most governments that the environment. That means that the world leaders sit at the table and not the environment ministers. Ironically in the sentence most often quoted by the mitigation sceptics Ottmar Edenhofer is expressing understanding for the owners of coal and oil.

    They were used to violating the property rights of others without paying for it, the large-scale equivalent of dumping your trash in your neighbours garden. Then it is annoying if the neighbour finds out what you are doing, wants you to stop and clean up the mess.

    Also doing nothing is redistributing wealth: "we as industrialized countries have quasi expropriated the atmosphere of the world community." This is a kind of redistribution social Darwinists may find natural, but it goes against the property rights our capitalism system is based on. That is socialism for the owners of coal and oil.

    I guess it is natural for people who are willing to pretend that climate science is wrong to defend their political views to assume that people who accept climate science do so for political reasons. That is [[psychological projection]] and Karl Rove strategy #3: Accuse your opponent of your own weakness. My impression is the opposite: most people prefer to be grounded in reality, not just in my science bubble.


    * Photo of Prof. Dr. Ottmar Edenhofer Chefökonom des Potsdam-Instituts für Klimafolgenforschung by Stephan Roehl licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.


    Source: Variable Variability

  • 31.07.2017: Will we be wiped out by machine overlords?



    The American Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) just aired a piece on artificial intelligence that seems to be quite typical for the American published opinion. The segment — titled "Will we be wiped out by machine overlords? Maybe we need a game plan now" — could not have been more wrong in my non-expert opinion.

    They gave examples of the progress of machine intelligence. The example that impressed me the most is computers beating humans at playing Go, a game that starts from an empty board and has a huge number of possible progressions. From these examples of very specific tasks they extrapolate to machines soon having more general intelligent than humans. I think they are wildly optimistic (pessimistic?) about that. This will still take a long time.

    A hint of how difficult handling reality and other "intelligent" beings is is the world soccer tournament for robots. And that is still just a game with a well defined surrounding and rules.



    Notice that when the robots make a goal, they do not take off their shirts and do not jump on each other to celebrate.

    But there will likely be a time where computers are smarter than we are. So what? They have long been better at mental arithmetic, now they are better at Go. That does not make them overlords. Machines are also faster than us, stronger than us, dive deeper than us, explored more of the planetary system than us. So what?

    Just because machines are intelligent, does not mean they want to rule and even less that they would be evil. It will be hard enough to program them to survive and not to jump off a cliff. Making them want to survive will be even harder.

    Just because they would be intelligent, does not mean they are like us. That is likely the main thinking error people are making: we are intelligent, thus an intelligent entity is like us. We evolved to want to survive and reproduce, mostly by collaborating with each other and nature, if necessary also in conflict. Intelligence is just a side show of this, that was apparently advantageous in our niche.

    It is possible to make computers solve problems with methods that mimic evolution. Rather than tell the computer in detail what to do, with these methods you only tell the computer what problem you would like it to solve. That has to be a concrete aim so that the computer can determine if it is getting better at solving the problem. Even if you somehow are able to make the computer solve the problem "general intelligence", the computer would just be intelligent.

    Being a human is so much more than being intelligent. There is currently a bonus on the labour market for smart people, but you need so much more capabilities and drive to make something of your life.

    If being intelligent were so great, we would have been much more intelligent already. It probably helps if a tribe has a few intelligent people, but a tribe of philosophers would quickly go extinct. Getting the variability right is as important as the mean and bigger is normally not better, there are trade offs.

    One wonders where this fear for intelligence comes from. There are so many people more dangerous than a nerd with stick arms. There are also such machine-overlord stories in Europe, but my impression is that is is more common in America and I wonder if this is anti-intellectualism being in vogue. A country where the government thinks scientists are the enemy and need to be defeated. Sad.



    Or where the Trump-voter whisperers on the left blame kids who are interested in learning for all the societal ills of America and absolves the rest as innocent victims who cannot be expected to engage with society. This ignores that most of the elite were born into their wealth and have nice diplomas because of the wealth of their parents rather than their yearning for learning.

    It is the failure of the front-row kids (elites, political-class, wealthy, etc), who have empowered, enriched, & removed themselves 6/
    — Chris Arnade (@Chris_arnade) 28 July 2017

    While I do not see an evil machine overlord ruling over humanity or destroying us, machine intelligence could be a game changer in several ways. Many, at least in newspapers, worry about its influence on the labour market and the creation of mass unemployment. This is possible, but I worry about this a lot less, it is just another step towards more automation and the additional efficiency has just made us more affluent. As far as I can see, we do not understand where unemployment comes from (apart from a small part of it due to changing jobs; [[frictional unemployment]]), so I am surprised that people are confident in making unemployment predictions, especially predictions into the far future.

    Machine intelligence can change the balance of power. It is most worthwhile to invest in automation of large professions that serve needs for the coming decades. These are the professions everyone knows, which helps fuel the media scare. It will be a long time before someone invests money to make [[bell founders]] redundant. These kinds of jobs are not well known, but combined a decent part of the economy and in future likely even more. Collective bargaining is harder for these kinds of jobs, so labour may lose over capital, but these are also jobs where it is is hard to find replacements, where trust and good relations are important, so it could also be that labour wins over capital.

    A recent survey of experts in machine intelligence predicted that in 2049 (pardon the accuracy) bestsellers will be written by computers and 11 years from now create a song that makes the US top 40. I do not believe this one bit. I would be happy to buy a book on coding in FORTRAN written by a computer, but when it comes to novels or a book on politics, I want to hear from a human. The computational methods I use to generate climate time series can also be used to generate pleasing music. That could have been a career option, but I would have hidden that the music was composed by a computer. Otherwise no one would have listened to it more than once. It may provide cheap background music in a supermarket.



    Many jobs also need a lot more than just intelligence: sales people, doctors and teachers. At least for fast food workers it would have been easy to automate their jobs decades ago, but people prefer food made by humans handed to them by humans. Even simple restaurant now often have an open kitchen to show that the food it cooked by humans and not just nuked factory food.

    If intelligence becomes a commodity that you can buy, the current bonus on the labour market for smart people may be gone. That was anyway just a recent invention. It would be interesting to see how that changes science; intelligence is an important skill for a scientist, but there are many more important ones. Also now a smarter colleague is often happy to do some complicated specialised task.

    When worrying about overlords, a more sensible option would be to worry about humans aided by machine intelligence. Looking at ISIS and their "Christian" counterparts is seems that evil people are not particularly intelligent or creative. It could be dangerous if such people could buy their missing intelligence at Amazon. On the other hand maybe there is a reason for the anti-correlations, the more intelligent humans will be less sure of themselves and fundamentalism may disappear.

    Initially likely only the elite can afford to buy more intelligence, but we would probably move quite quickly into a regime where everyone has such an add-on and intelligence just becomes normal and nearly worthless.



    The main robots to worry about are the amoral machines we invented to create money. Corporations evolved with the aim of gaining money and power. They die, merge, split up and need to survive to make money. As long as they were small and made money by efficiently producing better goods and services within the bounds of the law they did a wonderful job, now they have grown large and started looking for political power. Corrupting the political system is an efficient was to grain money and power. When amoral robots do so, this may not end well for humans who are already squeezed out like lemons.

    Related reading

    PBS: "Will we be wiped out by machine overlords? Maybe we need a game plan now"

    BBC: "The automation resistant skills we should nurture"

    Big Think: "Here's When Machines Will Take Your Job, as Predicted by AI Gurus"

    The survey itself: "When Will AI Exceed Human Performance? Evidence from AI Experts"


    * Photo Corpo Automi Robot by Bruno Cordioli used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence.

    Source: Variable Variability

  • 27.07.2017: WMO Recognition of Long-Term Observing Stations

    From the July 2017 newsletter of the WMO [World Meteorological Organization] Integrated Global Observing System (WIGOS). With some additional links & [clarifications].

    Long-term meteorological observations are part of the irreplaceable cultural and scientific heritage of mankind
    that serve the needs of current and future generations for long-term high quality climate records. They are
    unique sources of past information about atmospheric parameters, thus are references for climate variability
    and change assessments. To highlight this importance, WMO has a mechanism to recognize long-term observing stations. By so doing, the Organization promotes sustainable observational standards and best practices that facilitate the generation of high-quality time series data.

    The initiative is envisaged to maintaining long-term observing stations, including in particular stations with more than 100 years observations — Centennial Stations — in support of climate applications (DRR [Disaster Risk Reduction Programme], GFCS [Global Framework for Climate Services], etc.) and research (climate assessment, climate adaptation, etc.). While acknowledging the efforts by Members to run and maintain appropriate observing systems including long-term observing stations, existing and potential difficulties which Members’ NMHSs [National Meteorological and Hydrological Service; mostly national weather services] are facing, due to their overall resource constraints and competing societal interests at national level, are observed by the same time.

    The mechanism involves close collaboration between the Commission for Climatology (CCl), the Commission for Basic Systems (CBS), the Commission for Instruments and Methods of Observations (CIMO), the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) through an ad-hoc advisory board, as well as the WMO Members and the Secretariat. The 69th Session of WMO Executive Council (May 2017) recognized a first set of 60 long-term observing stations following an invitation letter from WMO Secretariat to Members to submit no more than three candidate stations. Further invitation letters will be released every second year to extend the list of WMO recognized long-term observing stations. The next call for the nomination of candidate stations will be issued in early 2018.

    The recognition mechanism is based on recognition criteria that address the length, completeness and consistency of observations at a station, the availability of minimum station metadata, data rescue, WMO observing standards including siting classification, observational data quality control and the future of the observing station. A self-assessment template for recognition criteria compliance of individual observing stations has been developed for Members to submit candidate stations, which has to be filled in for each candidate station. After review by the above mentioned advisory board, a list of stations is tabled at Executive Council sessions for final decision. It is envisaged to renew the recognition of observing stations every ten years to ensure criteria compliance.

    A special WMO Website has been implemented that provides information on the mechanism and lists candidate and recognized stations:

    https://public.wmo.int/en/our-mandate/what-we-do/observations/long-term-observing-stations

    Furthermore, the recognition will be reflected in the WIGOS station catalogues. It is also planned to design a certificate per recognized station as well as a metal plate for installation at the station site.
    Source: Variable Variability

  • 23.07.2017: Is nitpicking a climate doomsday warning allowed?


    Journalist and amateur mass-psychic David Wallace-Wells published an article in the New York Magazine titled: "The Uninhabitable Earth - Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think."

    Michael Mann responded on Facebook as one of the first scientists. He disliked the "doomist framing" and noted several obvious inaccuracies at the top of the article that all exaggerated the problem.

    Some days later seventeen climate scientists of Climate Feedback (including me) reviewed the NY Mag article.

    In my previous blog post I argued that this is a difficult, but important topic to talk about. The dangers of unfettered climate change are huge. Also if we do not act faster than we did in the past we are taking serious risks with our civilisation and existence. We should seriously consider that the situation can become worse than what we expect on average. Such cases are a big part of the total risk.

    While the danger is there and should be discussed, the article contained many inaccuracies, which typically exaggerated the problem. Thus I have rated the article as having "low scientific credibility", which was the most selected rating of the other scientists as well.

    Both the critique of Mann and of Climate Feedback produced quite some controversy. This was exceptional; normally the people who see climate change as an important problem trust the scientists who told them about the problem.

    Like other climate scientists I correct both sides when I see something and have enough expertise. Although it is much rarer to have to correct people who see climate change as a problem (let's call them the "concerned"). I guess the real problem is big enough, there is not much need to exaggerate it. The overwhelming amount of nonsense comes from people playing down the problem. Normally the deniers really dislike contrary evidence, but the concerned are mostly happy to be corrected and to be able see the problem more clearly.

    It is interesting that this time the corrections were much more controversial. Why was it different this time? Was our "nitpicking" a case of the science police striking again? Could Climate Feedback give more useful ratings?

    Doomsday scenarios are as harmful as climate change denial

    Michael Mann followed up his Facebook post with an article in the Washington Post together with communication expert Susan Joy Hassol that "doomsday scenarios are as harmful as climate change denial". The key argument was:
    Some seem to think that people need to be shocked and frightened to get them to engage with climate change. But research shows that the most motivating emotions are worry, interest and hope. Importantly, fear does not motivate, and appealing to it is often counter-productive as it tends to distance people from the problem, leading them to disengage, doubt and even dismiss it.
    This is an argument climate activists who want to be effective need to be aware of. The well-known groups already tend to stick to the science. Climate change is bad enough as it is and they rightly value their credibility.

    The argument makes me uncomfortable, however, when connected to science. The situation is what it is. Also if that provokes fear, scientists should stick to the evidence and not tone it down to be "effective". It is the job of an activist to be effective. It is our job is to be honest.

    If the population would have to fear we are not honest, that would produce additional uncertainty and give more room for the prophets of doom. Thus toning it down fearing fear can also produce fear.


    David Wallace-Wells uses the fear that scientists hide the severity to make his story more scary. He is claiming throughout that article that scientists are not giving it straight: scientist are technocrats who are too optimistic that the problem can be solved, "climate denialism has made scientists even more cautious", he talked to many scientists, but does not name most in the original article, thus suggesting they are only willing to tell the truth anonymously, "the many sober-minded scientists I interviewed over the past several months ... have quietly reached an apocalyptic conclusion", "Pollyannaish plant physiologists", "Climatologists are very careful when talking about Syria", "But climate scientists have a strange kind of faith: We will find a way to forestall radical warming, they say, because we must."

    This framing may have made the article more attractive to readers who expect scientists not to be honest and to understate the problems. This in turn may have provoked a more allergic reaction to the Climate Feedback critique than an article mostly read by people who love and respect science.

    That the audience matters is also suggested by clear difference in the responses on Reddit sceptic and Reddit Collapse. The people on the Reddit of the real sceptics (not the fake climate "sceptics") were interested, while the people preparing for the collapse of civilisation were more often unhappy about Climate Feedback.

    In the Climate Feedback reviews the doomist tone is often not appreciated, but if you look at the details, at the annotations of the scientists, it is clear that the problem is that the NY Mag article contains errors that exaggerate the problem, not the bad news that is accurate. In the summaries spreading doom and exaggerating were sometimes used interchangeably. So let me say clearly: I have never talked to a scientists who was more worried in private than in public.

    While scientists say what they think, they do tend to be careful in what they claim. The more careful the claim, the more confident a scientist can be that the evidence is sufficient to support it. We like strong and thus careful claims. This is justified when it comes to the question whether there is a problem. You do not want to cry wolf too often when there is none. However, as I have argued on this blog before we should not be careful about the size of the wolf. Saying the wolf is a Chihuahua is not good advice to the public.

    My advice to the public would be to expect problems to be somewhat worse than the scientific mainstream claims, but not to go to prophets of doom and especially to avoid sources with a history of inaccurate information. (At least for mature problems, in case of fresh problem it can go both ways.)

    Nitpicking

    Looking at the high risk tails is uncomfortable for everyone, also for scientists. That provokes more critical reading and an unfortunate claim in such a story will get more comments than a similar one hidden in a middle of the road most accurate story.

    However, unfortunately the article also often made statements are clearly inaccurate, wrong or are missing important context. The biggest error in the article — from my perspective as someone who works on how accurately we know how much the Earth is warming — was this line:
    there are alarming stories every day, like last month’s satellite data showing the globe warming, since 1998, more than twice as fast as scientists had thought.
    This has been updated by David Wallace-Wells to now read:
    there are alarming stories in the news every day, like those, last month, that seemed to suggest satellite data showed the globe warming since 1998 more than twice as fast as scientists had thought (in fact, the underlying story was considerably less alarming than the headlines).
    This was a report on a satellite upper air dataset that was the favourite of the climate "sceptics" because it showed the laast warming. Scientists have always warmed that that dataset was unreliable. Now an update has brought it in line with the other temperature datasets. The "twice as fast" is just for a cherry picked period. That is about as bad as mitigation sceptical claiming that global warming has stopped by cherry picking a specific period.


    The scientific assessment for the actual warming did not change, certainly not become twice as much. If anything we now understand the problem better, which would mean less risk. The change is also not that much compared to the warming we had over the last century.

    Because the actual scientific assessment did not change one could also argue that the mistake is inconsequential for the main argument of the story and the comment thus nitpicking. At least for me it matters. I hope more people feel this way.

    There were many more mistakes like this and cases where missing context will give the reader the wrong impression. I do not want to go through them all in this already long post; you can read the annotations.

    There were also cases which were also nitpicking from a scientific viewpoint. Where these comments were mine, I included them for completeness. They also did not influence my rating much.

    Apparently I have to add that parts of the text without annotations are not automatically accurate. Especially for such a long article annotating is a lot of work. At a certain moment there are enough annotations to make an assessment. In addition even with 17 scientists it will happen that none of the scientists has relevant expertise for specific claims.

    Climate Feedback rating system

    We may want to have another look at the rating system used by Climate Feedback; see below. Normally finding a grade is quite straight forward. In this case I had to think long and was still not really satisfied.


    Suggested guidelines for the overall scientific credibility rating
    Remember that we do not evaluate the opinion of the author, but instead the scientific accuracy of facts contained within the text, and the scientific quality of reasoning used.
    • +2 = Very High: No inaccuracies, fairly represents the state of scientific knowledge, well argumented and documented, references are provided for key elements. The article provides insights to the reader about climate change mechanisms and implications.
    • +1 = High: The article does not contain major scientific inaccuracies and its conclusion follows from the evidence provided.
    • 0 = Neutral: No major inaccuracies, but no important insight to better explain implications of the science.
    • -1 = Low: The article contains significant scientific inaccuracies or misleading statements.
    • -2 = Very Low: The article contains major scientific inaccuracies for key facts supporting the author’s argumentation and/or omits to mention important information and/or presents logical flaws in using information to reach his or her conclusion.
    • n/a = Not Applicable: The article does not build on scientifically verifiable information (e.g., it is mostly about politics or opinions).


    The scale is not symmetrical in the sense that if you get X facts wrong and X facts right you are in the middle. It might be that some people expect that. I would argue that getting only 50% right is pretty bad for a science article.

    A problem in this case was that we can only give integer grades. So I gave a -1. I thought about neutral, but decided against it because that would mean "no major inaccuracies" and there were. For the part I could judge I found several mistakes and cases of missing important context (that is the description of -1). Had it been possible, I would have given the article a -0.5., because the tag "low scientific credibility" sounds a bit too harsh.

    The rating of the article and the summary is made independently by all scientists and most made the same consideration. Had I been able to see the other "low" rating, I might have opted for "neutral" for balance. (We can see the annotations of the other scientists and can also respond to them. Sometimes when I am one of the first to make annotations, I wait with my rating to see what problems the others find.)

    The relativity of wrong is very important. This same week Climate Feedback reviewed a Breitbart story about the accuracy of the instrumental warming estimate (my blog post on it). That was a complete con job and got "very low" rating. Giving the New York Magazine piece half the Breitbart rating does nor feel right. A scale from 0 to 4 may work better than one from -2 to 2. A zero sounds a lot worse than one and "low" would not be half of "very low".

    The actual problem may be only -2 means inaccuracies influencing the main line of the story. It is more a scale for a science nerd looking for a high quality article than a scale for a citizen wanting to know how reliable the main line of the story is. Up to now that was mostly correlated, for this piece is was not, which made grading hard.

    The more concrete a claim is, the more objective it can be assessed. Thus I would personally prefer to keep it a scale for science nerds and not go to a more vague and subjective assessment whether the main line is accurate.

    A previous Feedback on a climate nightmare article by climate journalist Eric Holthaus got plus and minus ones. That shows that such an article can get positive ratings. That the article was never rated "neural" suggests that we may have to reconsider its description. That it states "no important insight" may make neutral almost worse than -1. It sounds like the famous quote: "not even wrong."



    Based on the above discussion of the NY Mag review my suggestion for a new rating system would be the one below. It should be seen if it also fits well to other articles. I changed the numbers, the short descriptions and the long description for neutral.


    Suggested guidelines for the overall scientific credibility rating
    Remember that we do not evaluate the opinion of the author, but instead the scientific accuracy of facts contained within the text, and the scientific quality of reasoning used.
    • 4 = Excellent science reporting: No inaccuracies, fairly represents the state of scientific knowledge, well argumented and documented, references are provided for key elements. The article provides insights to the reader about climate change mechanisms and implications.
    • 3 = Very good science reporting: The article does not contain major scientific inaccuracies and its conclusion follows from the evidence provided.
    • 2 = Good science reporting: Mostly accurate statements and only minor inaccurate ones.
    • 1 = Some problems: The article contains significant scientific inaccuracies or misleading statements.
    • 0 = Major errors: The article contains major scientific inaccuracies for key facts supporting the author’s argumentation and/or omits to mention important information and/or presents logical flaws in using information to reach his or her conclusion.
    • n/a = Not Applicable: The article does not build on scientifically verifiable information (e.g., it is mostly about politics or opinions).


    Why climate feedback?

    There were people asking why we, Climate Feedback, were doing this. This could be interpreted in two ways:
    1) Why do you nitpick this article I feel is an important wake-up call?
    2) Why do you do this at all?

    First of all, we do not know in advance what the outcome will be. Many articles on climate change are also very good and get great ratings. That is the kind of feedback journalists appreciate and which may help them in their careers and stimulate them to write better articles. Some journalists have even asked for reviews of important pieces to showcase the quality of their work.

    We had a few authors who updated their article. David Wallace-Wells also did so and added more sources and transcripts. As far as I know such updates have only happened on the side that accepts the science. Also in that way our work improves science journalism, although such updates will come too late for most readers.

    Most people will likely only get a general impression of how reliable news sources are when it comes to climate change. When we have enough reviews Climate Feedback will also make "official" assessments of the reliability of media sources. For more prolific writers also their individual credibility starts to become clear.

    The reviews have already made clear that people who accept that climate change is real typically write accurate articles, while writers who do not want to solve the problem typically write error-ridden and misleading articles. That is good to know.

    Only criticising the climate "sceptics" is not in the nature and in the training of good scientists. More utilitarian: solving climate change is a marathon, the energy transition will not be completed before 2050. Adaptation to limit the consequences of climate change will also be a job for generations to come. It is thus important that scientists are seen as trustworthy and only picking on one group would damage our reputation.

    There are people who want to understand the details and when they meet misinformation being able to explain what is wrong with it. On reddit these people gather in /r/skeptic/. They normally accept climate change is real and like details/nitpicking, quality arguments and a rational world.

    29. Along comes a brilliant writer from outside those circles, w/ a galvanizing, wildly popular piece, & for his efforts, he is ... scolded.
    — David Roberts (@drvox) 12 July 2017

    I do worry that there is also a downside to science policing in that people are less comfortable speaking about climate change fearing to be corrected. That is one reason to let minor cases slip and in bigger cases be gracious when it is the first time making a mistake. David Wallace-Wells responded graciously to the critiques, it were others that objected.

    Making a mistake is completely different from the industrial production of nonsense on WUWT & Co.


    It would be progress if scientists had a smaller role in this weird US "debate". It was forced on us by a continual stream of misinformation on the science from climate "sceptics". There should be a debate what to do about it and that is a debate for everyone. If you would see less scientists in US debates around climate change that would probably mean that the important questions are finally being addressed.

    It would also be progress because scientists are typically not very good communicators. Partially that is because most scientists are introverted. Partially that is the nature of the problem, some things are simply not true, some arguments are simply not valid and there is little room for negotiation and graciousness.

    On the other hand, science communication works pretty well in countries without the systemic corruption in Washington and the US media. So I do not think scientists are the main problem.

    Related reading

    Part I of this blog series: "How to talk about climate doomsday scenarios."

    The updated New York Magazine piece By David Wallace-Wells: The Uninhabitable Earth - Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think. (The reviewed original, the version with annotations.)

    The Climate Feedback Feedback: Scientists explain what New York Magazine article on “The Uninhabitable Earth” gets wrong.

    New York Magazine now also published extended interviews with the scientists interviewed for the piece: James Hansen, Peter Ward, Walley Broker, Michael Mann, and Michael Oppenheimer.

    Introduction to Climate Feedback: Climate scientists are now grading climate journalism


    Source: Variable Variability

  • 19.07.2017: How to talk about climate doomsday

    David Wallace-Wells wrote a 7000 word cover story in New York Magazine on how unchecked climate change may make the Earth uninhabitable. With 2.5 million readers this longread was the most read article in the magazine's history.

    That shows the impact a well written article can have. It also point to a change in the mood in America. Since Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement, happy to risk climate rapture for the quarterly earning of his donors, attention for climate change in America has spiked.





    Americans are living through a nightmare, where you see the danger coming, but cannot convince others to stand up to it. Until you wake up bathing in sweat and pick up your phone from the night stand to read tweets from climate "sceptics" mocking you for facing reality. The same people that make a nightmare out of a perfectly solvable problem.

    Sixteen climate scientists of Climate Feedback (including me) reviewed the NY Mag article. This number of reviewers may also be a record.

    My summary would be that while the dangers of unfettered climate change are real, we found many inaccuracies, which typically exaggerated the problem. Thus the article was rated as having a "low scientific credibility". Both the NY Mag article and the Climate Feedback rating and earlier criticism by Michael Mann have sparked some controversy.

    This post will be about how I would prefer the media to report on worse case scenarios. An second post will be about whether our "nitpicking" was the science police striking again?





    I have no idea how 2100 looks like. Put yourself in the place of a well-informed citizen of 1900 and what they may have thought today looks like. Meters of horse shit on the streets due to the growth of traffic? Or imagine how an American thought this time would look like 50 years ago. Flying cars and Mars colonies?

    Maybe in 2100 humanity has gone extinct, maybe civilization is gone, maybe humans are enslaved by corporations, maybe currently poor countries are also affluent and corporation can no longer repress us, maybe after another century of development we lead wonderful lives, maybe we are building our first intersolar cruiser, maybe no one cares about intersolar cruisers and people impress each other with poetry and four dimensional chess. Very likely they will be painfully embarrassed for me for the options I gave.

    I have no idea how they view climate change in 2100. Do they see it as the biggest historical liability put on them? Are they annoyed at the tax burden for the huge necessary geo-engineering program? Do they wonder why people in 2017 thought it was such a big problem, while it was so easy to solve? Are they happy that due to the geo-engineering program they now have weather satellites and it only rains at night in urban areas?

    Even in the best case scenario we are taking the climate system out of known territories. There will be many surprises and to be honest those are what worry me the most. The Uncertainty monster is not our friend and that makes it very hard to say which worst case scenarios are unrealistic.

    It is custom to accept smaller risks the bigger the stakes are. Cars and smoking kill many people, but one at a time. A risk someone may be willing to take personally will be larger than the risk one takes with a community, a country or our civilization. The risk of dying in a car accident is 1 in 84 (1.2 %), this would be an unacceptable risk for civilization or humanity. Thus we have to look at the tails.

    Finally, we expect the impacts of climate change to accelerate: Because some variability is normal, the first degree of warming makes much less problems than the next. Thus the risks of above average warming are expected to contribute much to the total risk. It is thus good that the article explores what surprises may be in store and talks about scenarios that are not likely, but risky.



    Four horsemen of the apocalypse

    The article reaches the worst case scenarios in four ways:
    1. The worst case for the emissions of greenhouse gases.
    2. The worst case for how sensitive the climate system responds.
    3. The worst case for the impacts and how humanity responds.
    4. The worst case for the scientific assessment of the evidence.
    1. The worst case emission scenario was the [[RCP8.5 scenario]] of the IPCC. These scenarios are really just that: scenarios. No probability is assigned to them.

    This is the IPCC report from 2013 and the scenarios were created well before that. My impression is that with the [[Paris climate agreement]] and the fast drop in the prices of renewable energy and storage, the RCP8.5 scenario is no longer very realistic. Another optimistic sign is that industrial emissions have stabilized the last 3 years. However, the US mitigation sceptical movement and their president will keep on fighting to make this dystopia a reality. So it is a legitimate question what kind of a world fossil fuel companies and these people want to create.

    2. It is completely legitimate to explore the tails of the probability distribution of the climate sensitivity. Even if it had only 30% probability, Trump did get elected. Even if the chance is just one out of six, you sometimes role a six. And let's not start about Russian roulette. Unfortunately the tail of the distribution is not well constrained and very high sensitivities are hard to exclude.





    3. The uncertainty of some impacts can be quantified reasonably well. These are the ones with the most physics in them such as heat waves and large-scale increases in precipitation. Then it is legitimate to go into the tail.

    Other impacts are not understood well enough yet (Will ice sheets collapse? How much greenhouse gasses will the soil release due to heating?) or will never be fully predictable because of societal and technological influences (Will The Netherlands evacuate before or after Noah's flood? Will plant breeding keep up with climate change? Will societies be able to cope with climate refugees?). In such cases I would like to hear a balanced spectrum of views, including extreme ones.

    Because the broad sweeping article discussed many climate change impacts it could not do justice to complexity of individual impacts. Climate change is typically just one stressor of many. When The Netherlands floods, the climate "sceptics" will not suddenly wake up and say "silly me, I was wrong, now I recognize that climate change is a problem, sorry about that". They will say the storm was to blame and it was really bad luck the storm came from the North West and its maximum coincided with high tides, the dikes were not strong enough, the maintenance not good enough and especially the government is to blame.

    Looking at history or at the future only from a climate change perspective brings back bad memories of [[climate determinism]]. The Age recently reported on farm workers in Middle America suffering and dying from chronic kidney disease. The regions where this new decease happens is well predicted by warming and changes in insolation. Simultaneously the problem is that these people are so poor that they have to work on hot days and also have a strong work ethic that promotes this. They tend not to drink during work and when they do it are often soft drinks because they are perceived as saver. A large part of the problem is funding for preventative care and people die because they cannot afford dialysis.

    Among the worst: Ellsworth Huntington's maps of climate 'energy'. But the idea that climate determines society go back to the Greeks 3/10 pic.twitter.com/5sVUmC70Dj
    — Simon Donner (@simondonner) 13 July 2017

    This example shows two things. First of all, like the dikes breaking in The Netherlands, the problem has many aspects. Secondly, this was a problem because it was new. There will be many surprises due to climate change. The study of (rare) diseases helps in understand how a healthy body works. It shows what is important for healthy functioning. Medicine can study many bodies, we only have one Earth and will very likely be surprised what the Earth did for us without us realising it.

    4. Like for non-physical impacts, where I am hesitant to go into the tail is when it comes to the interpretation of the evidence. That quickly ends in cherry picking experts that say what you want to hear. Those are strategies for mitigation sceptics. Even if those experts do not stray from the evidence and only hold a pessimistic view; I feel this is not for serious science reporting. It is fine to explain the ideas of such experts, but they should be balanced with other views.

    Concluding, for the objective part of the problem: if you clearly say you are looking at the worst case feel free to go deep into the tail of the probability distribution. Only looking at mean changes understates the risks. The tail is a big part of the risk and thus very important. Do not forget to talk about many further surprises and that the Uncertainty Monster has an ugly bite.

    When it comes to the more subjective parts, please balance pessimistic with optimistic voices. Subjective judgements are unavoidable when it comes to worst case scenarios and the far future where the changes will be largest. People can legitimately have different world views and as a science nerd I would like to hear the full range of legitimate views.

    An article needs a focus, but please consider that climate change is one stressor of many. Climate change impacts are complicated, do them justice like a great novelist would and do not make a cartoon out of them.

    Related reading

    The updated New York Magazine piece By David Wallace-Wells: The Uninhabitable Earth - Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think. (The reviewed original, with annotations)

    The Climate Feedback Feedback: Scientists explain what New York Magazine article on “The Uninhabitable Earth” gets wrong.

    New York Magazine now also published extended interviews with the scientists interviewed for the piece: James Hansen, Peter Ward, Walley Broker, Michael Mann, Michael Oppenheimer.

    Introduction to Climate Feedback: Climate scientists are now grading climate journalism


    * Painting of the Four Horsemen by Viktor Vasnetsov - http://lj.rossia.org/users/john_petrov/166993.html, Public Domain, Link
    Source: Variable Variability


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Geosciences, Atmospheric Sciences, Atmosphere, Natural Hazards, Nonlinear Processes