by Don Aitkin, Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Canberra from 1991 to 2002

Measuring global warming

Don Atkins
Don Atkins

When I first began to immerse myself in the world of global warming, nearly ten years ago now, what perplexed me most was the business of measuring something called global temperature. The data seemed so spotty, so irregular, so contrived, that making an average of the averages of the averages (an arithmetic mean, more precisely), and then going on about differences of a less than a degree C seemed to me dubious in the extreme. I wrote a piece about it here.

So my tendency was just to dismiss it all. But if you did that, Professor Bob Carter pointed out to me, you couldn’t enter the debate at all. The orthodox and sceptics alike had to accept some measurement, and since the orthodox relied on their measurements, those who didn’t agree had to find fault with those ones, or supply their own, or both. I have remained uneasy about all this measurement nonetheless, as readers will have discerned from a lot of my essays here.

I now have a new source of encouragement for my doubt. It is a long paper by the French Société de Calcul Mathématique SA, which you could translate roughly as the Mathematical Calculation Company Ltd, and I’ll call SCM hereafter. SCM does a lot of work for the French Government, especially in defence and related areas, and it claims high competence in the areas of mathematical modelling, which is its core strength. Its home page (there is an English version) is most interesting — and its corporate slogan is ‘tools for decision help since 1995’. The paper is among other things a wonderful summary of what is known, what tools are used, where the data come from, and how valid and reliable they are.

SCM has called its monograph a ‘White Paper’, with the title ‘The battle against global warming: an absurd, costly and pointless crusade’, and that is strong stuff from France, which, the paper says, likes to see itself as the “good boy of Europe”, [and] adds an extra layer of virtue to every crusade. The English translation of this 195pp work is available here, and in this essay I am simply going to summarise its first chapter, which is on measurement. We in Australia are Anglophone to a great degree, and tend to dismiss stuff that doesn’t come in English. I could not have translated the paper without days of work, but someone else has done it, and even provided keys to the diagrams where they are in French.

Here is the start: All public policies, in France, Europe and throughout the world, find their origin and inspiration in the battle against global warming. The initial credo is simple: temperatures at the surface of the planet have been rising constantly for the past thirty years, and human beings are to blame.

SCM takes exception to the small numbers of measurement recording stations used to provide global averages. France has 554, but only 50 of them are used in the global system maintained by the WMO, and there are very few in much of Africa, northern Canada, western China, Greenland and inland Australia, let alone Antarctica, while those used to establish sea-surface temperatures are concentrated in a few areas. The Earth has a total surface area of approximately 500 million km2; this means that a reliable global analysis would require at least five million sensors, which is 1,600 times more than the 3,000 stations being used at the moment. And that is simply for the calculation of surface temperatures. This distribution would have to be repeated at every layer of the atmosphere and every depth of the seas.

The company doesn’t like the ‘anomaly’ either. The word ‘anomaly‘ is loaded in itself and not very scientific; it gives the reader the idea that there is going to be something abnormal, whereas it simply concerns the difference in relation to a reference period. Why not use a temperature figure? It is fascinating to see that, on such a heavily debated subject, nowhere on the American Government site is there any mention of a simple, global figure: for year N, the average temperature is so much. This in itself is enough to set off alarm bells for any mildly curious scientist… This simple observation [that] the average temperatures recorded vary from year to year. [and the question] Why? – is never analyzed by the scientists responsible for these matters.

In Europe and the USA, the paper points out, there have been good temperature data since 1880 (1850 for Europe). If you are going to use an anomaly, why isn’t the reference period 1880 to say 2010, rather than 1960 to 1990? The paper is scathing about the following commonly used graph, which does use a global temperature figure rather than an anomaly.

The format of this graph, the paper says, encourages the reader to interpret it as showing a recent rise in temperatures. The graph also shows the CO2 profile, and the graph‘s format might lead to a misreading: the reader will be tempted to see a correlation between temperature and CO2, when in fact the two profiles are different between 1880 and 1980, and a simple change in the scaling of the axes would alter the shape of the CO2 curve, destroying the visual link the reader has been tempted to make.

And more: Let us state this clearly: there is absolutely no scientific justification for presenting data in terms of anomalies. It is tendentious and encourages conclusions concerning global warming. One has every right to expect to be given a simple, global figure, which would simply be the average of values recorded locally.

The paper provides a succinct and accessible explanation of the difficulties that are involved if one is trying to define and calculate an average temperature, and shows how NSA changed the data three times between 1999 and 2014, each time providing a steeper trend in temperature anomalies for the USA. At the same time, another US organisation, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was showing that heat waves were very much worse in the 1930s than at any time since, including the present.


Here is the SCM conclusion. None of the information on global temperatures is of any scientific value, and it should not be used as a basis for any policy decisions. It is perfectly clear that:  there are far too few temperature sensors to give us a picture of the planet‘s temperature;  we do not know what such a temperature might mean because nobody has given it any specific physical significance; the data have been subject to much dissimulation and manipulation. There is a clear will not to mention anything that might be reassuring, and to highlight things that are presented as worrying; despite all this, direct use of the available figures does not indicate any genuine trend towards global warming!

Oh my goodness. Why haven’t we had something like this from within the UK, Canada, the USA or Australia? Will anyone in authority in the English-speaking world take notice of it? Probably not, for all the reasons I have mentioned in recent essays. But if you want to read something straight to the point, balanced and scientific that is also sceptical about the fuss about global warming, start with this SCM paper.


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