What IS climate science?

Longer texts

The most read Dutch article on my Academia account has a somewhat suggestive title. At this site you find the English translation of it: Real Science and Climate Science [1]. It did not explicitly address the question from the title of this article.

Is climate science a real existing branch of (serious) scientific practice?
That I started to wonder about this question was not because of the ‘Dobbelsteen affair[2].
Among others, Carla Faber Dik, MP for the tiny political party Christian Union presented this Delft professor as a ‘real climate expert’ who would really know better than people who have some or a lot of doubts about global climate warming / change due to human influence. This Dobbelsteen-guy indeed turned out to be a kind of a climate professor. He works at the Department of Architecture at Delft University and the field he’s studying is climate management. In buildings!

After the MP was made aware of this, she did not take back her words!
BTW, she also went to a university herself: she studied Art History …

By Remco van de Pol – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=72862941

Nor was it because of the use of the ‘title’ climatologist in the twitter bio of some weatherman who informed climate marchers that the bad weather they were facing during their march could also be associated with climate change.[3]

Climates versus climate

No, I started wondering about it when I thought about what I learned -decades ago- in primary and secondary school about different climates: emphasis on the plural!
Climates differed between different parts of the world. In space, that is.
Nowadays there is more talk about the climate, singular. And that this one climate does not change in space, but in time.

Ingrained in that shift is the suggestion that there is, as it were, an “average climate” in the world, AND that that average is of some importance. Even that ‘actually’ the whole world has to worry about (changing) that average. And if the world does not want to listen to climate-czars, then a country like the Netherlands should just set a good example. Really a very, very good example. So good an example, that governments on the other side of the earth will also see the light.

For anyone who thinks about it for a moment, it should be clear that an average climate is of no importance. For those who have not previously thought about that average aspect of climates and (world) temperatures, I quote myself:

Whether the sea becomes more threatening as a result of rising water levels (for example, due to the melting of ice in Greenland) or because the land is sinking (due to gas extraction or because you have established your country on an Atoll): your first concern should be to bring and keep the dikes up to standard. Of course for the Netherlands it is practical to do this together with our neighbouring countries Germany and Belgium: we do not want to have to build dikes on the national borders. However, consultations with Buthan, Paraguay or Maldives about this are pure madness.

The 97% madness

The operating by Dobbelsteen and by people who liked to be fooled by the name of his chair is not the heart of the matter, but it does touch on it.
The ‘case’ I am referring to here is the way in which shockingly large majorities among Western politicians, and Dutch politicians in particular, deal with the infamous claim ‘the science is settled’. And variants thereof. Mr Epstein wrote about this already in 2015 in the scathing ‘97% Of Climate Scientists Agree’ Is 100% Wrong.

Epstein says: you have to ask people, and politicians in particular, two questions:

1. What exactly do these climate scientists agree on?
2. How do we know that about that 97%?
Epstein built on this piece by one Edward. In both articles, this kind of work in particular by John Cook and others came under fire. On his own Academia page this Cook suggests to be a physicist, but on the page of his university we read that he is “research assistant professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, researching cognitive science”. And we see this reflected in his list of publications. His post-graduate profile page leaves no doubt that he is a psychologist and not a physicist. And the link to his CV is dead…

The problem with the majority of MPs and journalists is that they derive stories of ‘consensus among climate scientists’ – sometimes even ‘among scientists’ from studies by non-climate scientists such as this Cook or meteorologists and/or TV weather people. Therein lies the problem.

Chairs and promotions

When you accept that you can’t rely on those kinds of stories and that you shouldn’t strike a contemptuous tone, for example by calling people “climate deniers,” what should you do? There is little choice but to really delve a little deeper into chairs and work of people who –in name or actually– are involved in ‘climate science’. And that also includes: wondering what does or does not fall under that.
That is quite a task!
If I were a member of the Lower House (regardless of whether ‘climate’ and ‘energy transition’ were in my portfolio) or if I had a job as a science journalist, I would certainly put 100 or 200 hours of work into that orientation [4].

The first small step does scare a bit. For example, if you search for university chair climate science, you get more than 36 million results!
What is immediately noticeable in the top of these is that in the titles of the found articles often also the word ‘change’ appears. Google also comes up with so-called Searches related to among the first search results. It contains references to (the Dutch) ‘Wageningen university environmental science phd’ and a link to a complete climate-change faculty with a chair in Environmental Science & Policy Division ...

This faculty is part of an American university that has this enlightening mission:

…provides a unique opportunity for aspiring environmental leaders to pursue their passions. We bring together bright, talented, and ambitious people from across the globe whose interests vary from conservation to climate change and everything in between. They’re not just pursuing a job. They’re purpose-driven individuals who look beyond themselves to pursue a career that makes a positive contribution to the environment and the world. (My emphasis, like all in quotes, FG)

Environmental leaders: take a minute to let that sink in …

A handful of dissertations

For this article I have taken a closer look at a few dissertations that are (supposedly) ‘climate scientific’.

For the selection I started via the link to ‘Wageningen’. WIMEK (Wageningen Instituut voor Milieu en Klimaatonderzoek = ‘Wageningen Institute for Environment and Climate Research’) is by far the largest participant in the Netherlands Research School for the Socio-Economic and Natural Sciences of the Environment (SENSE). This institute was founded in 1993 and coordinates research and education of Wageningen University chairs “involved in this research field”.
In which field exactly? That is not very explicitly mentioned. What comes closest is this: “… integrated understanding of environmental change and its impact on the quality of life and sustainability.” And one of the things they want to excel in is ‘sustainable solutions’ of all types.
WIMEK also reports this in so many words on its page with publications. WIMEK’s approach is “considered to be essential for a solid contribution towards solving complex environmental problems.”

In other words, their premise is a problem, which they don’t really name exactly. On the basis of this starting point, it would just as easily include fundamental research. Strange.

Cattle in Mongolia

In the list of publications you will come across dissertations with very diverse titles.
For most of them, it can immediately be established with fairly great certainty that the research is perhaps interesting and important, but that it is just a small detail which’ significance for climate discussions can still go in all directions. But you will also find something like: “Effects of land-use change on grassland ecosystem services in Inner Mongolia and their implications for livelihoods and sustainable management.”

Nowhere in that dissertation is there a connection with CO2 hassle or ‘the’ climate. The greenest of all gases is only mentioned in this sentence: “From a health perspective, the smoke (CO, CO2, NO and suspended particles) from burning dung may be causes of respiratory and ocular diseases”. ‘Climate change’ does appear in it, but it goes like this:

Previous studies of the grassland ecosystems in IMAR have focused on climate change and its environmental consequences (Bolortsetseg and Tuvaansuren 1996; Dulam 2005; Dong et al. 2013; Liu et al. 2013; Xiao et al. 2013) or on the conflict between agrarian communities and nomads (e.g. Zhang et al. 2007), and most research in this region frequently addressed soil properties, soil erosion, vegetation changes, and the interaction between vegetation changes and soil degradation (Cao et al. 2002; Feng and Zhao 2011; Hoffmann et al. 2011; Li et al. 2011).

Or like this:

However, possibly [sic] as a result of climate change combined with overgrazing, the abundance of guinea grass decreased, and the abundance of Stipa capillata L. increased to replace it 69 (Bai et al. 2004). Stipa capillata reaches an overall height of 60 to 70 cm. This height difference explains the biomass increase (Figure 4.3), but this increase may be deceptive. A serious problem resulting from this species change is that the mature seeds of Stipa capillata are sharp and hurt the mouths and skin of the livestock, potentially leading to lost production or even mortality of the animals.

No trace of hysteria here: apparently (thanks to CO2 increase?) the biomass has increased, only in the form of plants that are less suitable for consumption by the (traditionally kept) livestock. But this is Mongolia, not (Dutch) meadows under strict control of farmers who create optimal conditions for the cattle.

Trees in the park

In a second dissertation from that list of WIMEK publications that I took a look at, I read this statement:

Not explicitly taking into account climate change adaptation in the new Dutch Environment and Planning Act (Omgevingswet) is not only a missed opportunity but also an ethical misjudgement.

Well, well…
The thing has the remarkable title: ‘Clever and cool [My goodness!]. Generating design guidelines for climate responsive urban green infrastructure’.

Interesting: what would a ‘climate responsive urban green infrastructure’ be? In searching for it, I stumbled upon this:

“We collected available information on climate-responsive urban design mainly from Germany, where urban design has been related to urban climate issues for a longer period (Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure Baden-Wuerttemberg, 2008). The general positive effects of green became clear from our literature research.”

In plain words: ‘trees and shrubs and such, are nice in city parks’…
A little further on, the author (advisor to the municipality of The Hague…) writes about the purpose of the dissertation research:

.. climate-responsive urban and landscape architectural design as a response to global climate change and urban heat problems.

Remarkable though: here she writes about global climate change while on pages 11 and 13 she talks about the ‘old-fashioned’ global warming…: 1.2 Global warming and urban heat stress. Global warming has induced an increase in heatwaves in the moderate climate of the Netherlands (KNMI, 2015). What a coincidence: just like that, the rather arbitrary KNMI adjustments to past data, in connection with the relocation of a measurement hut on its own terrain, reappear!
Central to this study appears to be the concept of thermal perception in outdoor urban spaces. How hot or cold does it feel in parks? That feeling has been investigated …

Arctic climate

A third and final ‘Wageningen’ study that I took a look at is promisingly titled: ‘Understanding the predictability of the Arctic climate’. Author is Folmer Krikke, and he studied with W. Hazeleger, Special Professor Climate Dynamics. This immediately reminds us more of serious scientific practice. In the summary I read:

.. from a scientific, ecological and an economic viewpoint there is a strong need for accurate knowledge on future development of the Arctic climate, and specifically its sea ice cover. This thesis therefore focuses on the predictability of the Arctic climate on time scales ranging from seasonal to centennial, with an emphasis on the physical processes that give rise to, or inhibit, this predictability. This is achieved by studying the physical mechanisms related to Arctic climate variability and climate change, both in climate models and observations.

The contrast between the first and last underlined part is somewhat poignant, but otherwise the research comes across as serious and relevant:

The intermodel differences in projected Arctic warming are very large, owing to considerable differences between climate models. A clear understanding of this large uncertainty is currently lacking.


In chapter 4 we use global climate models to show that springtime interannual variability in downwelling longwave radiation in the pre-industrial climate explains about two-thirds of the intermodel spread in projected Arctic warming under a high greenhouse gas emission scenario.

What I particularly like about this study is that it talks about “.. adaptation strategies to Arctic climate change” and therefore not about adapting to that imaginary global climate. Funny: in this dissertation ‘greenhouse gas’ occurs regularly but CO2 only once: in a title in the literature list…

Heat waves in the U.S.

The sixth link in my search results took me to an institute in Melbourne: Environment, Earth & Climate Sciences. Again that explicit ‘solution-orientation’:

Research in Environment, Earth & Climates Sciences is concerned with developing our understanding of the processes operating within, on and above the Earth’s surface, searching for solutions to environmental problems and developing the sustainable use of resources.

Even in the seemingly most relevant sub-department Climate, palaeoclimate and climate change you will find no studies, only names of employees. Through a randomly chosen researcher I came to this research (not a dissertation by the way): Factors Contributing to Record-Breaking Heat Waves over the Great Plains during the 1930s Dust Bowl [5].
So, fortunately, another serious investigation into one specific hazard in one specific area.
This includes a question like: ‘A further question is why the heat waves in later decades were not as severe as those during the Dust Bowl‘.
The explanation for the difference is rather complicated:

(…) This implies that the 1930’s heat waves were more severe due to anomalous circulation patterns arising over the continent, leading to strong subsidence-induced warming during heat wave onset, followed by warm advection from the north increasing the event severity. [5]

(…) The SST [Sea Surface Temperatures] pattern of the 1930’s warm spring and summers is somewhat opposite to that suggested to play a role in eastern United States heat waves in recent decades (i.e., cold North Pacific anomalies; McKinnon et al. 2016). It appears that protracted dry conditions over multiple seasons prior to the severest Dust Bowl summers, along with characteristic synoptic patterns that initially warmed the Great Plains through subsidence and then through advection, culminated in the record-breaking heat waves of the 1930’s. In the decades since, vast improvements in land practices through irrigation and greater drought awareness (Cook et al. 2013) have likely reduced both the severity of drought-induced soil erosion and the risk of springtime dust storms, thus alleviating the threat of the Great Plains temperatures surpassing the Dust Bowl records.
It is likely that warmer heat waves will arise in the future over central North America due to enhanced land–atmosphere feedbacks, given large-scale warming.

This research, like the aforementioned on the Arctic climate, offers a glimpse into the complexity in the developments within those -real existing, local- climates. It restores a bit of confidence in science and reminds us that the hysteria doesn’t really come from (97% of the..) serious scientists.

And that thanks to the modest, exploratory research that I did.

I advise MPs who dare to do so to undertake something similar. Preferably combined with conversations afterwards with people with different views. Such a combination can help to overcome the emotions.

Suicides in India

Writing about MP ‘s almost automatically brings us back to Mrs Faber-Dik. In an interview with her in the newspaper Trouw, shortly after her election as Member of Parliament, she came up with this remarkable statement:

We [sic] still notice little of climate change, but in other parts of the world it leads to crop failures. Therein lies my drive.

‘Other parts of the world’: let that sink in for a while.

Not fooling around: Art history is mighty interesting [7]. However, to want to make it your profession …?
A nice search with regard to Mrs Faber-Dik’s ‘drive’ is: crop failures and climate change. Indeed: almost 40 million results. In the top we always read ‘could lead’, ‘could have’, ‘will cause’, ‘will alter’, ‘potential impacts’, ‘alarm’. Do you see the trend?
Most sensational headline: Climate change causing suicides in India as crops fail. And it’s not just the headline. In the beginning of the article you will read:

Tamma Carleton discovered that warming a single day by 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) during India’s agricultural growing season leads to roughly 65 suicides across the country.

And that from someone from a ‘real university ‘ in California…
Please remember that headdesking ‘could lead’ to injuries.

Even this somewhat climate-hysterical website takes a different approach:

.. agricultural choices can have an extremely beneficial effect on the local climate. Funny: it fits almost perfectly with that study I was looking at about the infamous Dust Bowl on those American Great Plains.

1. You can find it here.
2] The link goes to this Dutch tweet from the woman depicted. It is dated January 1, 2019.
3. Yes, that association of oblique marching is intentional.
4. I spent about 12 hours on this article.
5. By Tim Cowan, Gabriele C. Hegerl, Ioana Colfescu, and Massimo Bollasina. School of Geosciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom AMS100, March 2017.
6. Wikipedia: With subsidence, adiabatic heating occurs and the relative humidity decreases. As a result, this high-pressure area is often cloudless. Subsidence is the opposite of convection, a rising air movement.
7. From the Curriculum Vitae of this MP: Study: Schoevers (1 year. It prepares people, mostly women, for a funtion as secretary), Art History Utrecht University. Career [sic]: Freelance art historian, 7 years city councillor Veenendaal, 5 years member of provincial parliament Utrecht.


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