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Can a group of scientists in California end the war on climate change?

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Can a group of scientists in California end the war on climate change?


The Guardian (London) February 28, 2011


Can a group of scientists in California end the war on climate change?


The Berkeley Earth project say they are about to reveal the

definitive truth about global warming


By Ian Sample


In 1964, Richard Muller, a 20-year-old graduate student with

neat-cropped hair, walked into Sproul Hall at the University of

California, Berkeley, and joined a mass protest of unprecedented

scale. The activists, a few thousand strong, demanded that the

university lift a ban on free speech and ease restrictions on

academic freedom, while outside on the steps a young folk-singer

called Joan Baez led supporters in a chorus of We Shall Overcome. The

sit-in ended two days later when police stormed the building in the

early hours and arrested hundreds of students. Muller was thrown into

Oakland jail. The heavy-handedness sparked further unrest and, a

month later, the university administration backed down. The protest

was a pivotal moment for the civil liberties movement and marked

Berkeley as a haven of free thinking and fierce independence.


Today, Muller is still on the Berkeley campus, probably the only

member of the free speech movement arrested that night to end up with

a faculty position there - as a professor of physics. His list of

publications is testament to the free rein of tenure: he worked on

the first light from the big bang, proposed a new theory of ice ages,

and found evidence for an upturn in impact craters on the moon. His

expertise is highly sought after. For more than 30 years, he was a

member of the independent Jason group that advises the US government

on defence; his college lecture series, Physics for Future Presidents

was voted best class on campus, went stratospheric on YouTube and, in

2009, was turned into a bestseller.


For the past year, Muller has kept a low profile, working quietly on

a new project with a team of academics hand-picked for their skills.

They meet on campus regularly, to check progress, thrash out problems

and hunt for oversights that might undermine their work. And for good

reason. When Muller and his team go public with their findings in a

few weeks, they will be muscling in on the ugliest and most

hard-fought debate of modern times.


Muller calls his latest obsession the Berkeley Earth project. The aim

is so simple that the complexity and magnitude of the undertaking is

easy to miss. Starting from scratch, with new computer tools and more

data than has ever been used, they will arrive at an independent

assessment of global warming. The team will also make every piece of

data it uses - 1.6bn data points - freely available on a website. It

will post its workings alongside, including full information on how

more than 100 years of data from thousands of instruments around the

world are stitched together to give a historic record of the planet's



Muller is fed up with the politicised row that all too often engulfs

climate science. By laying all its data and workings out in the open,

where they can be checked and challenged by anyone, the Berkeley team

hopes to achieve something remarkable: a broader consensus on global

warming. In no other field would Muller's dream seem so ambitious, or

perhaps, so naive.


"We are bringing the spirit of science back to a subject that has

become too argumentative and too contentious," Muller says, over a

cup of tea. "We are an independent, non-political, non-partisan

group. We will gather the data, do the analysis, present the results

and make all of it available. There will be no spin, whatever we

find." Why does Muller feel compelled to shake up the world of

climate change? "We are doing this because it is the most important

project in the world today. Nothing else comes close," he says.


Muller is moving into crowded territory with sharp elbows. There are

already three heavyweight groups that could be considered the

official keepers of the world's climate data. Each publishes its own

figures that feed into the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate

Change. Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City

produces a rolling estimate of the world's warming. A separate

assessment comes from another US agency, the National Oceanic and

Atmospheric Administration (Noaa). The third group is based in the UK

and led by the Met Office. They all take readings from instruments

around the world to come up with a rolling record of the Earth's mean

surface temperature. The numbers differ because each group uses its

own dataset and does its own analysis, but they show a similar trend.

Since pre-industrial times, all point to a warming of around 0.75C.


You might think three groups was enough, but Muller rolls out a list

of shortcomings, some real, some perceived, that he suspects might

undermine public confidence in global warming records. For a start,

he says, warming trends are not based on all the available

temperature records. The data that is used is filtered and might not

be as representative as it could be. He also cites a poor history of

transparency in climate science, though others argue many climate

records and the tools to analyse them have been public for years.


Then there is the fiasco of 2009 that saw roughly 1,000 emails from a

server at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit

(CRU) find their way on to the internet. The fuss over the messages,

inevitably dubbed Climategate, gave Muller's nascent project added

impetus. Climate sceptics had already attacked James Hansen, head of

the Nasa group, for making political statements on climate change

while maintaining his role as an objective scientist. The Climategate

emails fuelled their protests. "With CRU's credibility undergoing a

severe test, it was all the more important to have a new team jump

in, do the analysis fresh and address all of the legitimate issues

raised by sceptics," says Muller.


This latest point is where Muller faces his most delicate challenge.

To concede that climate sceptics raise fair criticisms means

acknowledging that scientists and government agencies have got things

wrong, or at least could do better. But the debate around global

warming is so highly charged that open discussion, which science

requires, can be difficult to hold in public. At worst, criticising

poor climate science can be taken as an attack on science itself, a

knee-jerk reaction that has unhealthy consequences. "Scientists will

jump to the defence of alarmists because they don't recognise that

the alarmists are exaggerating," Muller says.


The Berkeley Earth project came together more than a year ago, when

Muller rang David Brillinger, a statistics professor at Berkeley and

the man Nasa called when it wanted someone to check its risk

estimates of space debris smashing into the International Space

Station. He wanted Brillinger to oversee every stage of the project.

Brillinger accepted straight away. Since the first meeting he has

advised the scientists on how best to analyse their data and what

pitfalls to avoid. "You can think of statisticians as the keepers of

the scientific method, " Brillinger told me. "Can scientists and

doctors reasonably draw the conclusions they are setting down? That's

what we're here for."


For the rest of the team, Muller says he picked scientists known for

original thinking. One is Saul Perlmutter, the Berkeley physicist who

found evidence that the universe is expanding at an ever faster rate,

courtesy of mysterious "dark energy" that pushes against gravity.

Another is Art Rosenfeld, the last student of the legendary Manhattan

Project physicist Enrico Fermi, and something of a legend himself in

energy research. Then there is Robert Jacobsen, a Berkeley physicist

who is an expert on giant datasets; and Judith Curry, a climatologist

at Georgia Institute of Technology, who has raised concerns over

tribalism and hubris in climate science.


Robert Rohde, a young physicist who left Berkeley with a PhD last

year, does most of the hard work. He has written software that trawls

public databases, themselves the product of years of painstaking

work, for global temperature records. These are compiled,

de-duplicated and merged into one huge historical temperature record.

The data, by all accounts, are a mess. There are 16 separate datasets

in 14 different formats and they overlap, but not completely. Muller

likens Rohde's achievement to Hercules's enormous task of cleaning

the Augean stables.


The wealth of data Rohde has collected so far - and some dates back

to the 1700s - makes for what Muller believes is the most complete

historical record of land temperatures ever compiled. It will, of

itself, Muller claims, be a priceless resource for anyone who wishes

to study climate change. So far, Rohde has gathered records from

39,340 individual stations worldwide.


Publishing an extensive set of temperature records is the first goal

of Muller's project. The second is to turn this vast haul of data

into an assessment on global warming. Here, the Berkeley team is

going its own way again. The big three groups - Nasa, Noaa and the

Met Office - work out global warming trends by placing an imaginary

grid over the planet and averaging temperatures records in each

square. So for a given month, all the records in England and Wales

might be averaged out to give one number. Muller's team will take

temperature records from individual stations and weight them

according to how reliable they are.


This is where the Berkeley group faces its toughest task by far and

it will be judged on how well it deals with it. There are errors

running through global warming data that arise from the simple fact

that the global network of temperature stations was never designed or

maintained to monitor climate change. The network grew in a piecemeal

fashion, starting with temperature stations installed here and there,

usually to record local weather.


Among the trickiest errors to deal with are so-called systematic

biases, which skew temperature measurements in fiendishly complex

ways. Stations get moved around, replaced with newer models, or

swapped for instruments that record in celsius instead of fahrenheit.

The times measurements are taken varies, from say 6am to 9pm. The

accuracy of individual stations drift over time and even changes in

the surroundings, such as growing trees, can shield a station more

from wind and sun one year to the next. Each of these interferes with

a station's temperature measurements, perhaps making it read too

cold, or too hot. And these errors combine and build up.


This is the real mess that will take a Herculean effort to clean up.

The Berkeley Earth team is using algorithms that automatically

correct for some of the errors, a strategy Muller favours because it

doesn't rely on human interference. When the team publishes its

results, this is where the scrutiny will be most intense.


Despite the scale of the task, and the fact that world-class

scientific organisations have been wrestling with it for decades,

Muller is convinced his approach will lead to a better assessment of

how much the world is warming. "I've told the team I don't know if

global warming is more or less than we hear, but I do believe we can

get a more precise number, and we can do it in a way that will cool

the arguments over climate change, if nothing else," says Muller.

"Science has its weaknesses and it doesn't have a stranglehold on the

truth, but it has a way of approaching technical issues that is a

closer approximation of truth than any other method we have."


He will find out soon enough if his hopes to forge a true consensus

on climate change are misplaced. It might not be a good sign that one

prominent climate sceptic contacted by the Guardian, Canadian

economist Ross McKitrick, had never heard of the project. Another,

Stephen McIntyre, whom Muller has defended on some issues, hasn't

followed the project either, but said "anything that [Muller] does

will be well done". Phil Jones at the University of East Anglia was

unclear on the details of the Berkeley project and didn't comment.


Elsewhere, Muller has qualified support from some of the biggest

names in the business. At Nasa, Hansen welcomed the project, but

warned against over-emphasising what he expects to be the minor

differences between Berkeley's global warming assessment and those

from the other groups. "We have enough trouble communicating with the

public already," Hansen says. At the Met Office, Peter Stott, head of

climate monitoring and attribution, was in favour of the project if

it was open and peer-reviewed.


Peter Thorne, who left the Met Office's Hadley Centre last year to

join the Co-operative Institute for Climate and Satellites in North

Carolina, is enthusiastic about the Berkeley project but raises an

eyebrow at some of Muller's claims. The Berkeley group will not be

the first to put its data and tools online, he says. Teams at Nasa

and Noaa have been doing this for many years. And while Muller may

have more data, they add little real value, Thorne says. Most are

records from stations installed from the 1950s onwards, and then only

in a few regions, such as North America. "Do you really need 20

stations in one region to get a monthly temperature figure? The

answer is no. Supersaturating your coverage doesn't give you much

more bang for your buck," he says. They will, however, help

researchers spot short-term regional variations in climate change,

something that is likely to be valuable as climate change takes hold.


Despite his reservations, Thorne says climate science stands to

benefit from Muller's project. "We need groups like Berkeley stepping

up to the plate and taking this challenge on, because it's the only

way we're going to move forwards. I wish there were 10 other groups

doing this," he says.


For the time being, Muller's project is organised under the auspices

of Novim, a Santa Barbara-based non-profit organisation that uses

science to find answers to the most pressing issues facing society

and to publish them "without advocacy or agenda". Funding has come

from a variety of places, including the Fund for Innovative Climate

and Energy Research (funded by Bill Gates), and the Department of

Energy's Lawrence Berkeley Lab. One donor has had some climate

bloggers up in arms: the man behind the Charles G Koch Charitable

Foundation owns, with his brother David, Koch Industries, a company

Greenpeace called a "kingpin of climate science denial". On this

point, Muller says the project has taken money from right and left



No one who spoke to the Guardian about the Berkeley Earth project

believed it would shake the faith of the minority who have set their

minds against global warming. "As new kids on the block, I think they

will be given a favourable view by people, but I don't think it will

fundamentally change people's minds," says Thorne. Brillinger has

reservations too. "There are people you are never going to change.

They have their beliefs and they're not going to back away from them."


Waking across the Berkeley campus, Muller stops outside Sproul Hall,

where he was arrested more than 40 years ago. Today, the adjoining

plaza is a designated protest spot, where student activists gather to

wave banners, set up tables and make speeches on any cause they

choose. Does Muller think his latest project will make any

difference? "Maybe we'll find out that what the other groups do is

absolutely right, but we're doing this in a new way. If the only

thing we do is allow a consensus to be reached as to what is going on

with global warming, a true consensus, not one based on politics,

then it will be an enormously valuable achievement

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