by Jeremy Houser
The new release from the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project has created a huge buzz in the science pages of the mainstream press for peculiar reasons: it is a study that is relatively unexciting scientifically yet potentially very important politically. Accomplished physicist, noted contrarian, masterful self-aggrandizer, and recently converted climate skeptic Richard Muller presents – in the N.Y. Times, of all places, rather than a science journal – his recent conclusion, based on the BEST team’s reanalysis of tremendous numbers of global temperature records, that climate change is in fact real and largely the result of human activity. What make this ho-hum finding notable are primarily the perceived motivations and preconceived notions of Muller himself (and the other members of the team), and, for the more suspicious among us, the fact that the BEST project is largely funded by the Koch Foundation, one of the largest financial supporters of climate disinformation in the world.
The other important aspect of the study is that it confirms the well-established conclusions of climate scientists by using a very simple method – fitting the curve of temperature across the past 250 years to atmospheric CO2 concentrations – but doing it with the best data set obtained to date. This method can’t actually prove that human activity – or even CO2 for that matter – caused the warming (correlation doesn’t equal causation), but as Muller puts it, it raises the bar for skeptics: to be taken seriously, your alternative explanation should fit the curve as well as CO2 does.
Given this, it is ironic that a study that is logically incapable of proving causation would be described as “stronger than those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” a blanket that covers thousands of peer-reviewed studies across many scientific disciplines conducted over decades. It is clear that Muller’s writing still comes from the climate skeptic worldview, as shown by the second page of the article, which is full of skeptic talking points and straw men. He still doesn’t trust methods of projecting future climate (or of explaining past change) much more complicated than simply looking at past temperature records, which is why he believes his team’s research is the most (perhaps only?) compelling evidence for human-induced climate change. Most mainstream climate scientists would disagree, and while many are probably grimacing (or worse) at the amount of attention the BEST study has received in the mainstream press, in the end they are probably happy to have the support.