When the infamous hockey-stick graph that purported to prove that human activities are causing runaway global warming was finally broken, there is some irony in the fact that a couple of Canadians did the breaking. Retired mining engineer Steve McIntyre and Ross McKitrick, Professor of Economics at the University of Guelph, have been a thorn in the side of global warming alarmists for years. McIntyre, McKitrick and, more often, the acronym “M&M” to refer to the pair, are the subject of many discussions in the e-mails released from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU) last November.
Reading the e-mails, it quickly becomes clear that leading alarmist scientists, like Michael Mann at Penn State and Phil Jones at the CRU, seemed positively obsessed – almost to the point of appearing deranged at times – with discrediting McIntyre and McKitrick. For example, when the pair published their first hockey stick busting paper in 2003, Mann sent an angry e-mail to his colleagues, telling them how to deal with MM: “The important thing is to deny that this has any intellectual credibility whatsoever and, if contacted by any media, to dismiss this for the stunt that it is.”
Raymond Bradley, a climatologist with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and part of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), went even farther, suggesting that CRU should provide the “independent” voice that would discredit McIntyre and McKitrick: “…if an “independent group” such as you guys at CRU could make a statement as to whether the M&M effort is truly an “audit”, and if they did it right, I think that would go a long way to defusing the issue… If you are willing, a quick and forceful statement from The Distinguished CRU Boys would help quash further arguments.”
What did McIntyre and McKitrick do to put these climatologists on the defensive? To understand the significance of their work, we have to delve into global warming theory a bit. The disaster scenarios that alarmists predict can not be proven in real time. These scenarios are based on computer models that are horrendously complex and, even if modeling results match up with actual data during this year or that, it still proves nothing in terms of long-term trends.
The only way to prove that the models are accurate is to demonstrate that recent climatic trends are unprecedented. To do that, there are two choices: 1) compare recent climatic trends to actual temperature records, or 2) compare them to historic temperature records inferred using other, secondary sources like ice cores and tree rings, generically known as proxy data. The problem with first approach is that humans have only been recording temperatures across the globe for about the last century and a half, and many of those records are dubious. In terms of natural climatic fluctuations, this is much too short a period of time to conclude anything. So we’re left with proxy data and, when the IPCC issued its first report back in 1990, the committee was left with an embarrassing problem: the proxy data showed that the earth’s recent warming trend isn’t all that unusual. Specifically, proxy data showed the Medieval Warm Period, which ran from about 1000 to 1400 A.D., was much warmer than it is today.
Mann, Bradley and others then set to work on dissembling that set of proxy data, creating a new historical temperature record that “disappeared” the Medieval Warm Period and made it appear that planetary temperatures have been relatively stable over the last 2,000 years until they suddenly took off precipitously starting about 1970. The hockey stick graph was born.
Making the Medieval Warm Period disappear was an exercise in statistical manipulation, choosing “valid” data, eliminating “bad” data and using mathematical techniques to fill in the gaps. It’s complicated work, but precisely the sort of analysis that McIntyre and McKitrick are used to performing. For example, as a mining engineer McIntyre would have to study sets of core samples in an attempt to draw sound conclusions about the likely location and extent of mineral deposits. McIntyre and McKitrick set about closely examining how Mann, Bradley et al. had done their work. The pair reached the conclusion that, by manipulating the data in order to reach a foregone conclusion, alarmist scientists had incorrectly made the Medieval Warm Period go away. They published their work in 2003 in Energy and Environment and followed that up with a second paper in 2005, published in Geophysical Research Letters. Those two papers were instrumental in exposing the cracks in the shaky foundation upon which global warming alarmism has rested. McIntyre and McKitrick, working on their own, did what good scientists are supposed to do: they challenged conventional wisdom and they found it wanting. Al Gore received an Oscar and Noble Peace Prize. Steve McIntyre and Ross McKitrick haven’t been given any awards, outside of the thanks from an increasingly grateful public. Both of them, in this scientist’s opinion, deserve a medal.
Today, while McKitrick mostly remains in the background, McIntyre remains on the front lines of skepticism, appearing in documentaries and on the news. The release of the CRU e-mail and data files last November vindicated much of what the pair had said and also proved a boon for McIntyre’s website: climateaudit.org. A few days after the CRU story broke, traffic at climateaudit exploded to the point that McIntyre had to move the site to a new host in order to accommodate all of the traffic. Perhaps it was inevitable that two Canadians would be so instrumental in exposing the flaws inherent to alarmist arguments. Like many residents of the Great White North, surely McIntyre and McKitrick would welcome warmer temperatures, but they need only look out of their windows half of the year to know that such relief is not forthcoming.