William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Heartland Climate Conference Summary

This is an editorial that I sent out to various places.

I am one of the scientists that attended the recent Heartland Climate Conference in Manhattan, where I live. It is my belief that the strident and frequent claims of catastrophes caused by man-made global warming are stated with a degree of confidence not warranted by the data.

Although it is a logically fallacy to invoke this argument against opponents, let me say first that I have never accepted any money (except my graduate student tuition) for the work I have done in statistical meteorology and climatology. Incidentally, it isn’t because I wouldn’t, it’s just that nobody’s ever offered. I also did not get the one-thousand dollar honorarium from Heartland for speaking at this conference.

At the conference, I presented the same original research that I recently gave at the American Meteorological Society conference in New Orleans. I serve on the Probability and Statistics Committee of the AMS. This work was based on a paper I wrote and is about to appear in the Journal of Climate that shows that the number of tropical storms and hurricanes have not increased in number or intensity since we have had reliable satellite measurements. I also find that previous crude statistical methods others have used to analyze hurricanes have given misleading results.

It is trivially true that man, and every other organism, influences his environment, and hence his climate. It is only a question of how much, is it harmful, and can the harm be mitigated. It is indisputable that mankind causes climate change, even harmful change. But most of this change is local and due mainly to land use modifications. For example, replacing a forest with crop land creates different heat exchange characteristics in the boundary layer. These differences are easily measurable: cooler nighttime temperatures over crop land is an easy example.

It is important to recognize that some changes to our climate are beneficial. That converted crop land, for example, feeds people, which most would agree is a benefit. Diverted and dammed rivers provide water.

We also know with something near certainty that carbon dioxide has been increasing since the late 1950s. We are less certain, though nearly sure, that it has been increasing since about 1900. Before this date, we are even less certain of the global average amount. The reason is that before 1959 there were no consistent direct atmospheric measurements and so we must estimate the values based on proxies. Converting proxies to estimates requires statistical modeling. Part of every statistical model is, or should be, a quantification of the uncertainty of the estimates. This uncertainty is known by those who convert the proxies, but nearly always forgotten by those who use the estimates as input to climate or economic models.

It is absolutely clear that mankind is responsible for a portion of the carbon dioxide increase. What most people—not climatologists, but others—do not know is that this portion is only a fraction of the increase. The rest of the increase is due to other causes. These causes are not fully understood—a sentence you have often seen, and which means that we are not certain.

Temperatures have been directly measured for a little over a century. The number of locations at which temperature is taken has gradually increased, reaching something like full coverage only in the last thirty to forty years. It is certain that at many individual stations mankind has caused changes in measured temperature. Mankind caused both warming, due to the urban heat island effects, and cooling, such as by land use changes.

Joining these disparate measurements, and controlling for the changes and increases in locations, and the changes known to be due to urban heat island and other land use changes, to form an estimate of global average temperature again requires statistical modeling. And very difficult and uncertain statistical modeling at that. The resulting estimate should be presented with its error bounds, though it never is. These error bounds are currently larger than any projected increases in temperature, which makes it difficult or impossible to verify climate model output.

Surprisingly, climate models are not certain. We have deduced, and therefore know, the fundamental equations of motion, but there is some uncertainty in how to solve them inside a computer. We also are fairly sure of the physics of heat and radiative transfer, but there is large uncertainty in how to best represent these physics in computer code because climate models describe processes at very large scales and heat physics take place at the microscopic level. So these physics are parameterized, which increases the uncertainty in the climate model forecast.

All climate models undergo a “tuning” process, whereby the parameterizations and other parts of the computer code are tweaked so that the model better fits the past observed data. This necessary step always increases the uncertainty we have in predicting independent data, which is data that has not been used in any way to fit or tune the models. And it is a fact, and therefore certain, that, so far, climate models have over-forecast independent data, meaning that they have said temperatures would be higher than have actually occurred.

Lastly, there is the abundance of secondary research that uses climate model output as fixed input. This is the work that shows global warming causes every possible ill. I have never met one of these studies that quantified the uncertainty due to assuming climate models are error free. This means that their conclusions are vastly overstated.

Too many people are too confident about too many things. That was the simple message of the Heartland conference, and one that I hope sinks in.

Update 6 March: I have been getting some private questions, so I wanted to emphasize that I have not even gotten grant money to do my meteorology/climatology work. Any grant money I did get was from my advisor for my research fellowship in mathematical statistics when I was a graduate student. Since then it has been in the form of NIH and private foundation grants for biostatistical work. Unlike most climate researchers, I do it for fun and not for profit.


  1. A concise and eloquent summation. Hopefully it will be both widely published and read. Perhaps common sense will prevail and various agencies will back away from some of the more dogmatic and draconian policy options that have been advocated in favor of a period of further study. Whatever else, it should be apparent that the abyss is not imminent and we do have time to take the science beyond its present nascent stage to a point where reasonable and effective policy options can be developed. Weather is not climate, but ongoing weather patterns can act to cool the political zeal to act. Ultimately this is a political issue, a fact many advocates seem to forget.

  2. Well and reasonably stated, Bill. This would make a good guideline for a statement to be posted at most “realist” sites.

    One factual point on your statement about temperature monitoring stations “reaching something like full coverage only in the last thirty to forty years” which needs a little explanation. I’m not sure if you are including a transition from ground-based to orbital instruments in this statement.

    Ground-based stations have both greatly decreased in number and in maintenance in recent years. There is a graphic representation of this on Climate Audit as well as a commenter supplied animation of them that really shows the decline in the last 20 years. There are also problems with land-use changes, instrument changes, and re-sitings of the stations that aren’t currently being dealt with very well. I have serious doubts that the warming claimed by Hadley and NASA are good reflections of reality.

    As to the MSU satellites, their orbital swaths provide decent coverage, but only the latest ones are equipped with motors to keep them in their designated orbits. Orbital drift has made some problems with the satellite data that RSS and UAH have each dealt with in their own ways pretty well. I’m inclined to trust the satellites more than the ground stations for the last two decades.

  3. My read of the threads at CA are much the same as Arthur’s.

    I think the tone of your editorial is excellent. I will be interested in seeing the reactions to it.

  4. Briggs

    March 5, 2008 at 11:55 am


    I did mean to tacitly include satellite measurements.

    My piece is obviously nowhere near complete, and I was trying to keep to a word limit of 850 or so, the usual op-ed length.

    Your comments are obviously important.


  5. During the 1950s/1960s, I believe the National Academy of Sciences had committees that examined ideas about ways for man to alter local weather conditions by design. Times have changed and such a committee would be unlikely today.

    There were about 3 NAS reviews of the environmental concern about CFCs eroding the ozone layer. They could provide examples of careful, balanced assessments of a troubling environmental topic concerning which there were strong opinions, since the reports were steered by a statistician.

    Statisticians can be judicious adjudicators of fevered claims about the environment or health. This seems even to hold for cheerful statisticians.

  6. Economics is the “dismal” science: statisticians who are not economists tend to be pleasant, cheerful and optimistic types.
    Of course, I have no data to base this on except for the host of this blog.

  7. Pierre Gosselin

    March 5, 2008 at 2:18 pm

    “Too many people are too confident about too many things. That was the simple message of the Heartland conference, and one that I hope sinks in”.

    Ask the climate alarmists to put money down on their catastrophe scemarios and you’ll see just how confident they really are.
    I have yet to find one alarmist who is willing to bet money on the sea level rises they themselves are confidently projecting.
    If you want to shut these annoying alarmists up, then demand that they put their money where their mouth is. And watch em run like a bat out of climate hell!

  8. Pierre

    For the moment alarmist wish to put your money where their mouth is. Alot safer this way.

  9. Well written and well reasoned. As a retired telephone engineer and instructor I’ve often talked about “engineering arrogance”. It seems the same illness infects those dealing with climates. The problem is this is not the explosion of a space shuttle or the sinking of a ship, it is the death (if some comments are correct) of thousands of people and the impoverishment of those that would help them.

    I suppose all we can do is continue to explore the subject, hope our pre-conceived notions are validated, and continue to do good science and math.

  10. The hurricane people (some of them that is) will be coming after you hard when your paper is published. Just a warming if you needed one.

  11. A measured and therefore splendid editorial, Mr. Briggs. Given the uncertainties of AGW and “climate change,” i read your essay as a call for greater humility about how much “we” do NOT know. Well done and best of luck to you, sir.

  12. Matt:
    Did you hear Dr. Miskolczi’s talk? He was kind enough to send me a copy of his presentation, but alas the math is beyond me. However, the point he makes seems to be stunning: Is the standard CO2 forcing estimate really based on a mis-specified equation from 1926 that nobody until he has re-examined? Can you comment?

  13. Briggs

    March 7, 2008 at 7:42 am


    No, I didn’t. In fact, just yesterday afternoon I downloaded his paper from the Q.J. of the Hungarian Meteorological Service. Haven’t read it yet, but will soon.


  14. “It is absolutely clear that mankind is responsible for a portion of the carbon dioxide increase. What most people?not climatologists, but others?do not know is that this portion is only a fraction of the increase.”

    What? That statement could use some support, since climatologists say that mankind is responsible for all of the increase. For example see here.

  15. Having a background in statistics (B.S. Business Probability and Statistics and some postgrad work) I am all to familiar with the “layman’s” acceptance of model output as fact.

    But my main reason for commenting relates to your second paragraph. I have attempted on many occasions to point out to certain alarmists that a person’s sources of funding does not, in and of itself, mean the person’s positions were “bought” or are wrong. It becomes even more annoying when you attempt to put the shoe on the other foot and question the financial sources of the “alarmists”, which, for some reason, seems to have no relevence what so ever to their followers.

    Thank you for the article. Cheers!

  16. The editorial states a lot of positions without developing the supports. But at least you’re clear that it is an editorial.

    I’m so bummed that you were at Heartland. What did you think of the old warhorses? How many had a spark of genius? How many would you follow into examination of a difficult problem with no political overtones (say an engineering examination of a new phenomenon)? How many had publication practices and how many were blog warriors like Watts?

    (Segue) What is your over/under on temp sensativity of doubling CO2? IOW, the value at which you are indifferent which side of the bet you get stuck with?

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