Spot the Red Herring

December 16, 2009

Climate sceptics (or “wreckers”) often like to point towards “alternative” theories to explain the warming of the globe in the past 50 years, if they aren’t denying the existence of that warming altogether, but that’s another story.

As the Independent’s Steve Connor explains, the theory goes something like this:

The theory of [Eigil] Friis-Christensen and [Henrik] Svensmark revolves around [an] argument connected to the well-established 11-year cycle of sunspots that appear on the surface of the Sun. Sunspots are dark pools of magnetic activity that well up to the solar surface in periodic peaks of 11 years or so. When there are a lot of sunspots, the Sun is said to be more active.

In fact 11 years is only the average length of the activity cycle, which can vary between seven and 17 years. Shorter cycles of 10 years or less are associated with a more magnetically active Sun, when the solar wind of charged particles streams out towards the Earth with greater-than-normal intensity.

When sunspots are most active there is also a slight increase in solar intensity of 0.1 per cent. But this is hardly enough to account for the increase in global warming over the past half century, and this cyclical variation is not what Friis-Christensen and Svensmark are proposing as the cause of global warming.

The two Danes believe instead that there is a complex relationship between the length of the solar cycle and the amount of low-level cloud that forms in the Earth’s atmosphere. Because shorter cycles are associated with a more magnetically active Sun, this affects the cloud cover and hence the climate on Earth.

This theory appeared to provide a robust alternative theory for temperature changes – complete with photogenic graphs tracking temperature changes with sunspot activity.

It certainly fooled many people. In the past few weeks, content using sunspot activity as a possible explanation for climate change has appeared on the website of CBS News, while Christopher Brooker continues to peddle it in the Telegraph and the Times’ Stuart Clark wondered last month whether decreased sunspot activity might be bringing a decade of arctic weather….

Spotting those spots is something the mass media regularly likes to engage in.

The problem is, the graphs in question were heavily doctored by the scientists involved to produce a correlation. Even the aforementioned Eigil Friis-Christensen accepts that there is a clear “divergence” between sunspot activity and global temperatures.

New research by retired climate scientist Peter Laut has pretty much closed this area of debate, for now. Incidentally, this also reflects very poorly on “the Great Global Warming Swindle” which relied heavily on doctored graphs to make its point that greenhouse gases are not responsible for global warming.

Yet the media is unwilling to give this much exposure, excepting the Independent’s excellent article and, of all things, a minor piece by the Telegraph (which, as noted above, has aired extremely questionable musings on the role of sunspots by Christopher Brooker in the recent past).

But surely the misplaced enthusiasms of climate scientists should be exposed wherever possible?

Apparently not. Such misrepresentation is ironic given the ongoing “climategate” controversy over allegedly doctored research into global temperatures which formed part of the 2007 UN IPCC report into climate change.

On the subject, here’s a comprehensive rebuttal of those commentators who feel the leaked e-mails from climate scientists in any way invalidates the idea that greenhouse gas emissions are linked to climate change:

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