Nelson's Column

Charlie Nelson's Blog

Charlie's blog contents page

Charlie's home page


Australia's Climate Commission report misses key points

The first report from Australia's Climate Commission, "The critical decade" aims to provide up-to-date information on the science of climate change.  It was written by Will Steffen and published in May 2011.

The report has been met with a predictable reaction from the deniers in the Liberal and National parties and from those in industry who want to delay any significant action on reduce fossil fuel usage.

Here are a few examples:

"I mean the simple fact is over the last ten years there has been no increase in the globe's temperature." Liberal backbencher Dennis Jensen said.
Australian Financial Review, 24 may 2011, page 6.

"When Professor Flannery in 2005 predicted Sydney's dams could be be dry in just two years, well it was a prediction that could be either right or wrong.  Professor Flannery has made an assertion which has now not come to pass and that leads then people to, I think, question quite rightly as to the the robustness of the information being provided to the Australian people via the Climate Commission."
Liberal Senator Eric Abetz, ABC online news, 24 May 2011. 

I anticipated such reactions and in August 2010, I called for an enquiry into the arguments of the deniers, see Time for an inquiry into the arguments of anthropological global warming deniers

I also wrote to Tim Flannery, the Chief Commissioner on 7 April 2011 setting out my concerns:

7 April 2011

Professor Tim Flannery
Chief Commissioner
Climate Commission

Dear Tim

Climate scientists losing their case in the court of public opinion

I am concerned that climate scientists are losing their case in the court of public opinion and that there is, therefore, potential for procrastination, perhaps for decades to come.  This would indeed be catastrophic.

I provide some evidence that the case is being lost.  I describe a plausible scenario in which temperature rises caused by global warming are outweighed for some time by natural forces.  This would likely result in the public and their representatives in parliament losing what is left of their will to act on global warming for perhaps decades.  I provide evidence that climate scientists are not paying enough attention to natural drivers of climate.  Finally, I make some suggestions about how we might go about preventing this potential catastrophe.  These are aimed at reversing the trend away from reasoned debate and improving the confidence in climate models.

I should say up front that I have no doubt about the basic science of global warming.  I am not a climate scientist.  But I do have a degree in science, majoring in statistics.  I am a forecasting consultant with over 35 years experience in a range of industries.  I have felt compelled to analyse climate data because it is clear that climate scientists have not been able to adequately explain observed variation.  I have shown my work to some climate scientists – in some cases it has been dismissed but in others it has been complimented.  I was able to predict, in September 2009, that the long drought in Melbourne and south eastern Australia was about to end – and it has indeed done so.

Climate scientists are losing in the court of public opinion

Much polling data in Australia and around the world suggests a weakening of the public will to act on climate change.  No doubt the Commission is familiar with that.  I survey opinion on expectations about the future.  I have found that these opinions (the “wisdom of the masses”) about the likelihood of events happening are not always accurate in their own right, but that the expectations help us to predict consumer behaviour.

One of the issues we measure is the likelihood of clear signs of global warming in the next 12 months (see chart below).  The surveys had a sample size of 500 per wave until 2010 when the sample size was increased to 1200 (nationally representative telephone poll).


The perceived likelihood of clear signs of global warming in the next year has fallen significantly since late 2008 to the extent that it is now considered less than a 50% chance.

There could be several reasons for this drop.  One is that global warming deniers have turned up the volume and that their arguments have not been convincingly rebutted (in the eyes of the public) by climate scientists – in particular, the argument that there has been no warming since 1998.  Another is that temperatures may not be perceived to have risen much over the past two years.  There have been two unusually (by recent standards) cold northern winters in the past two years.

Unless this trend reverses, there will not be enough will amongst the public, and their representatives in parliament, to make a long-term commitment to action.

A perverse global warming scenario

IPCC scenarios only show monotonic warming, to varying degrees, of the atmosphere over coming years.  But historical temperatures have fluctuated – not just from year to year but over decades.  The atmosphere cooled between the late 1870’s and about 1910 and again between the mid 1940’s and the mid 1970’s.  Could this happen again?

My scenario, described in the enclosed article “Global warming scenarios”, is based on another period of cooling starting in the current decade.  This period could last for several decades, as it has in the past. (see Global warming scenarios)

I do not say that this scenario is likely – but it is plausible.  Mike Hulme, Professor of Climate Change in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, has been good enough to read it.  He agrees that the scenario is plausible and has suggested the North Atlantic Oscillation as one potential multi-decade driving mechanism in addition to my suggestion of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

He concurs that climate scientists have not developed models which adequately quantify decadal and multi-decadal variability for a host of reasons.

The consequences of this scenario playing out are dire – climate scientists would lose credibility because they have not prepared us for such an outcome, nor have they explained that such an outcome is possible while still being consistent with global warming caused by increased greenhouse gas concentrations. 

Climate scientists are not paying enough attention to natural drivers of climate

I have provided an example above of climate models not adequately capturing the impacts of multi-decadal natural variability.

My second example concerns rainfall in Melbourne and southeastern Australia more generally (see enclosed article “Predicting Melbourne’s wet periods” - ).

Based on my analysis, I was able to advise Melbourne Water and the Murray Darling Basin Authority as early as September 2009 that the long drought had been driven by natural factors and would soon come to an end.  That has indeed happened, although those organizations have never shown any interest.

Professor David Karoly (University of Melbourne) kindly reviewed an early version of my work but dismissed it. Natural cycles appear to have been ruled out by climate scientists.

The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) and the CSIRO are not considering the role of the moon’s cycles, nor the sun’s, as a driver of rainfall and as a result their predictions are not as accurate as they ought to be.

In Special Climate Statement 22, issued on 1 October 2010, BOM discussed Australia’s wettest September on record in 2010.  With regard to Melbourne, the statement said:

Although 2010 has been the wettest year in Melbourne since 2005, January-September rainfall has still been 35mm below normal, and it is likely that 2010 will be a fourteenth consecutive year of below average rainfall for the city.

Melbourne went on to record its wettest year since 1996 with a total of 777mm, 20% above the long-term average of 648!  At the time the statement was written, it was clear that the Indian Ocean Dipole favoured high rainfall in Melbourne and surrounds (for the first time in several years) and so did the state of the lunar node cycle.

In May 2010, the South Eastern Australian Climate Initiative (SEACI) released a report from Phase 1 of their research into climate variability and change in south-eastern Australia.  At a cost of $7.5 million, the sixty-odd scientists from CSIRO, BOM, and other organizations found that large-scale factors that influence the climate of south-eastern Australia cannot explain the decline in autumn rainfall.  These factors include the El Nino – Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) and the Southern Annular Mode (SAM).  The study found that:

  • Changes in the Hadley Cell are leading to increasing surface pressure across the region, represented by the sub-tropical ridge (STR);
  • The increase in the intensity of the STR is well correlated with decreasing rainfall in all seasons except summer;
  • There is evidence that the changes in the Hadley Cell and STR are linked to global warming, rather than simply being a natural fluctuation in the global circulation.

The report states that: “Yet another possibility is that the current [rainfall] decline is a natural cycle in the climate of south-eastern Australia”.  “..., it could be argued that a return to wetter conditions is likely in the near future, and that any association of the current dry period with global warming is simply fortuitous.  This is considered to be unlikely by SEACI researchers”.

But there has been a return to wetter conditions and it was happening before the final draft of the SEACI report was finished!  And it was confirmed within months of the report being released – the Murray Darling Basin had its wettest year on record in 2010!  My research has found that in comparison with three natural drivers of rainfall in south-eastern Australia, the STR is of minor importance.  And the SEACI report does not even consider the influence of the lunar and solar cycles! 

These poor predictions by climate scientists do not inspire public confidence.  Indeed, it was with unfortunate timing that the Murray Darling Basin Authority released its recent plan.  Likewise, the construction of the huge desalination plant in Victoria was based on good intentions but poor advice from climate scientists.  The cost is huge, but the biggest cost will be the resulting complacency on the part of the public, farmers, and politicians.  Because there will be another long drought, caused by natural factors, perhaps as early as 2017 to 2022 and we will not be adequately prepared for it.

Suggestions for avoiding extended procrastination

Climate scientists to better incorporate natural variation in models, especially low frequency drivers.  Models which do not adequately incorporate such effects are likely to produce forecasts with lower accuracy than is possible and this tends to lead to a loss of confidence amongst the public.

Climate scientists should communicate the uncertainty inherent in their predictions.  The IPCC scenarios do not represent the full range of plausible variation and any outcome outside the claimed range would result in a loss of confidence.  It should be understood that a wider range is possible while still being consistent with the ultimate temperature rise caused by increased greenhouse gas concentrations.

The emphasis on peer reviewed science for the purposes of communication with public should be reduced.  Peer reviewed science does not quickly adapt to findings which are contrary to conventional wisdom (Kuhn’s paradigm) and could be perceived by the public to be subject to perversion if the recent article in The Spectator is accurate (“Breaking the ice”, 10 February 2011, page 8).  In addition, articles not published through the peer review process, are not publicly acknowledged along with reasons for their rejection.  Thus, the public is not made aware of research which is not considered valid, nor the reasons why.

Hold an inquiry into arguments of skeptics and deniers.  After “Climategate”, climate scientists were subject to an inquiry.  It is time that the arguments mounted by skeptics and deniers were subject to independent scrutiny.  Such an inquiry would be headed by a judge, a leading business person, and a scientist not associated with the IPCC process.  Climate scientists would have an opportunity to rebut submissions made by skeptics.  Such an inquiry may yield some valuable insights which can contribute to better science.  But any clearly not credible claims should be publicly discredited.  This would leave the public, business leaders, and politicians with less scope for making spurious claims designed to stop or delay action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Implement greenhouse gas reduction strategies for reasons other than global warming.  Many actions which reduce greenhouse gas concentrations are worth doing for other reasons.  For example, protecting and restoring forests is good for diversity, ecotourism, and has the potential for the discovery of new medicines.  Improved energy efficiency reduces costs and lifts productivity (which has been static for too long in Australia).

Continue to make the case for pricing carbon.  The case for urgent action on global warming must continue to be made.  We need both the carrot and the stick if we are to succeed.


This is a critical time for the future of our planet, as I’m sure you agree.  We do need to change our approach to climate science research and it’s communication.  The suggestions I have made are aimed at minimizing the scope for climate science to be doubted and for continued procrastination.  I hope that the Commission takes note of my submission and that it contributes to your deliberations.


Best wishes


Charlie Nelson




It is to be hoped that the Climate Commission will soon release a second report which will have more impact on the deniers because they may just have enough votes in Parliament (either now or in the near future) to block any serious strategy to reduce Australia's greenhouse gas emissions.

Charlie Nelson
May 2011