Professor Counters Global Warming Myths With Data

Photo: Richard Muller, a UC Berkeley physics professor, started the Berkeley Earth group, which tries to use scientific data to address the doubts that global warming skeptics have raised.
Javier Panzar/Staff
Richard Muller, a UC Berkeley physics professor, started the Berkeley Earth group, which tries to use scientific data to address the doubts that global warming skeptics have raised.

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Global warming is the favored scapegoat for any seemingly strange occurrence in nature, from dying frogs to hurricanes to drowning polar bears. But according to a Berkeley group of scientists, global warming does not deserve all these attributions. Rather, they say global warming is responsible for one thing: the rising temperature.

However, global warming has become a politicized issue, largely becoming disconnected from science in favor of inflammatory headlines and heated debates that are rarely based on any science at all, according to Richard Muller, a UC Berkeley physics professor and member of the team.

"There is so much politics involved, more so than in any other field I've been in," Muller said. "People would write their articles with a spin on them. The people in this field were obviously very genuinely concerned about what was happening ... But it made it difficult for a scientist to go in and figure out that what they were saying was solid science."

Muller came to the conclusion that temperature data - which, in the United States, began in the late 18th century when Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin made the first thermometer measurements - was the only truly scientifically accurate way of studying global warming.

Without the thermometer and the temperature data that it provides, Muller said it was probable that no one would have noticed global warming yet. In fact, in the period where rising temperatures can be attributed to human activity, the temperature has only risen a little more than half a degree Celsius, and sea levels, which are directly affected by the temperature, have increased by eight inches.

To that end, he formed the Berkeley Earth group with 10 other highly acclaimed scientists, including physicists, climatologists and statisticians. Before the group joined in the study of the warming world, there were three major groups that had released analysis of historical temperature data. But each has come under attack from climate skeptics, Muller said.

In the group's new study, which will be released in about a month, the scientists hope to address the doubts that skeptics have raised. They are using data from all 39,390 available temperature stations around the world - more than five times the number of stations that the next most thorough group, the Global Historical Climatology Network, used in its data set.

Other groups were concerned with the quality of the stations' data, which becomes less reliable the earlier it was measured. Another decision to be made was whether to include data from cities, which are known to be warmer than suburbs and rural areas, said team member Art Rosenfeld, a professor emeritus of physics at UC Berkeley and former California Energy Commissioner.

"One of the problems in sorting out lots of weather stations is do you drop the data from urban centers, or do you down-weight the data," he said. "That's sort of the main physical question."

Global warming is real, Muller said, but both its deniers and exaggerators ignore the science in order to make their point.

"There are the skeptics - they're not the consensus," Muller explained. "There are the exaggerators, like Al Gore and Tom Friedman who tell you things that are not part of the consensus ... (which) goes largely off of thermometer records."

Some scientists who fear that their results will be misinterpreted as proof that global warming is not urgent, such as in the case of Climategate, fall into a similar trap of exaggeration.

The Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Study was conducted with the intention of becoming the new, irrefutable consensus, simply by providing the most complete set of historical and modern temperature data yet made publicly available, so deniers and exaggerators alike can see the numbers.

"We believed that if we brought in the best of the best in terms of statistics, we could use methods that would be easier to understand and not as open to actual manipulation," said Elizabeth Muller, Richard Muller's daughter and project manager of the study. "We just create a methodology that will then have no human interaction to pick or choose data."


Claire Perlman is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected]

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