Back in 2016, Dr Friederike Otto, Associate Director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, put her name to a paper in which the following words can be found:

“The answer to such an open question as have CO2 emissions caused the 2003 European heatwave is thus dramatically affected by (i) how one defines the event 2003 European heat­wave and (ii) whether causality is understood in a nec­essary or sufficient sense. Precise causal answers about climate events thus require precise causal questions.”

Given that the words ‘dramatically’ and ‘precise’ play such an important role in the above statement, one would have thought that Dr Otto would thenceforth be fastidiously careful when publically communicating the causation of heatwaves. Well, maybe she has been or maybe she hasn’t. This is what she recently said regarding the causation of the Pacific Northwest heatwave of 2021:

“The Pacific Northwest 2021 heatwave is still rare in today’s climate, yet would be virtually impossible without human-caused climate change. As warming continues, it will become a lot less rare.”

Subject to the usual caveats regarding the uncertainties in climate models and the statistically dubious manner in which uncertainty is treated when such models are handled as ensembles, there is nothing wrong with the above statement – but only as far as it goes. The two problems with it are that:

i) It doesn’t adequately define the event.

ii) It understands the heatwave’s causation in a purely necessary sense. Nothing is said regarding sufficiency.

Does this matter? Well it seemed to matter a great deal to Dr Otto when she was talking to other scientists back in 2016, and she had seemed very keen then to emphasise to her colleagues how much it should matter when communicating results to a wider audience. But when it came to doing so herself, it didn’t seem to matter to Friederike all that much.

There may be a number of reasons for this apparent ambivalence regarding the importance of providing precise and complete causal answers. Some seem quite reasonable to me, whilst others reflect less well upon the scientific community. I think it depends upon one’s view regarding the essence of causation and the importance of downplaying uncertainty.

The Humpty-Dumpty syndrome

Firstly, it is indeed very easy to influence the narrative when one enjoys the freedom to define an event as one wishes. For example, it didn’t seem to bother any of the scientists involved in the Pacific Northwest 2021 heatwave attribution study that the duration of the exceptionally high temperatures failed to meet the World Meteorological Organization’s criterion for the definition of a heatwave – at least not for the area covered by the study. Such detail didn’t matter to the attribution team because the actual event they were interested in was the recurrence of such extreme temperatures within a stated period – no matter how transient such a recurrence may be. Furthermore, one can also be very choosey regarding the geographical extent of the ‘heatwave’. The scientists knew where the newsworthiness lay, and so didn’t think it relevant to reference the unusually cold temperatures contemporaneously visiting other areas of the North American content. Fair enough, but it would still be interesting to see attribution studies that demonstrate just how unlikely certain cold snaps are in the light of global warming. Unfortunately, the message doesn’t communicate as well when focusing upon events that are less likely with human-caused climate change, rather than events that are ‘virtually impossible’ without it.

Whither sufficiency?

Secondly, what about that failure to mention the sufficiency of human-caused climate change? Dr Otto was very keen to draw attention to the necessity of human-induced climate change in order to understand the heatwave, but where was the equally valid statement to the effect that human-caused climate change was almost certainly insufficient to explain it? Was this fact downplayed because it was giving the public too much to think about? Was it deemed too much off-message? The omission seems even more troubling when one considers the extent to which the records were broken. The freakishness of the event was so obvious that one has to say (from an anthropogenic climate change perspective) that the levels of insufficiency were high enough for everyone to start panicking that the climate models must be wrong. But does such high insufficiency matter when it comes to making a statement of causation?

Well not to the majority of climate scientists. They are more than happy to emphasise the necessity of anthropogenic climate change and leave it at that. However, despite this, they are not lying by omission. Rather, it is a case of most of them simply failing to understand that a causation statement is incomplete without a reference to sufficiency. And even those that do understand this still believe that (when push comes to shove) it is only necessary causation that truly matters. In the very same paper in which Dr Otto and her co-authors bemoan the common failure to offer full disclosure in attribution statements, you will find a simplistic example of how probability of necessity (PN) and probability of sufficiency (PS) work in law, followed by this assertion:

“The probability of sufficient causation PS is thus close to zero here, but this is not important in a legal context, in which it is only PN that matters, while PS does not.”

Frankly, particularly given the facile nature of the example the authors use, I think they are well out of their depth here in discussing the legal angle. Many natural disasters are man-made in the sense that the necessary weather conditions were far from sufficient in causing the damage or loss of life. Poor forest management, delinquent flood protection, poor drainage, arson, bad building design and inappropriate siting of buildings are all acts and omissions that bear upon matters of sufficiency from the AGW perspective, and yet they all add to the culpability; it is certainly not a case of being able to ignore low PS values. But that does not matter here. All that matters is that Dr Otto, along with the remainder of the climate scientists and activists, are fully signed up to their view and so cannot be accused of hiding a factor (low sufficiency) when they secretly know it to be very important. They are not hiding it – they are either ignorant of the issue or just convinced it can be ignored. Furthermore, there is once again the relevance of event definition. According to Dr Otto and her fellow authors back in 2016:

“Even in the few such cases where evidence supporting neces­sary causation is strong, assertive causal statements appear to have been shied away from, possibly by the perception that sufficiency was lacking. A statement such as “CO2 emissions have not caused the particular event Y: they have only caused the probability of occur­rence of Y-like events to increase” may actually often be too conservative and even wrong; as in the above example, it may indeed be the case that CO2 emissions did cause event Y, although in a restrictively necessary causation sense. Further, by defining the event to mean not just occurrence in a particular year but during the entire industrial era, it may be possible to establish that event Y was in fact caused by increased CO2 emis­sions—this time wrt both necessity and sufficiency.

So it seems that a lack of sufficiency need not be a problem. One can always convince oneself it isn’t really relevant if one takes a judiciously long term view. That certainly seems to be the position taken by Dr Otto in the Northwest Pacific heatwave attribution study. When she said in 2016 that a different definition of ‘event’ can dramatically affect the answers to attribution questions, I took that as a warning. I didn’t appreciate that she meant it to be taken as a glorious opportunity.

Staying on message

However, there is another way of looking at this issue, in which the lack of attention to matters of sufficiency appears far less benign. The problem, it seems, is a concern that any allusion to sufficiency could be construed as an exaggeration of the uncertainties – and we can’t have that. As Dr Peter Stott of the Hadley Centre puts it:

“If the public hears that a particular weather event is consistent with climate change they may conclude that it is further proof of the immediate consequences of human-induced global warming. On the other hand, if the public hears that it is not possible to attribute an individual event, they may conclude that the uncertainties are such that nothing can be said authoritatively about the effects of climate change as actually experienced.”

In other words, a leading climate scientist is saying that one cannot underestimate the importance of ensuring confirmation bias when it comes to extreme weather event attribution, and this objective is reason enough to expunge any talk of sufficiency from the debate. Furthermore, there are plenty of others who are willing to take this cause seriously. For some time now, the BBC has used the following standard statement whenever reporting upon weather event attribution:

“Experts say climate change is expected to increase the frequency of extreme weather events, such as heatwaves. However, linking any single event to global warming is complicated.”

Be it ever so glib, there is, at least, an obscure hint at insufficiency in there. But climate scientist Ed Hawkins is not happy with such ‘excess caution’, suggesting that the journalists replace that statement with:

“Experts say that climate change is already increasing the frequency of extreme weather events, and many single events have been shown to have been made worse by global warming.”

So that’s fine. Keep it simple, keep it on message, and don’t give the public a chance to think about anything that might cast the seeds of doubt.

In science we can trust – just keep your eye on the scientists

Censorship takes many forms. One of them is when well-intended but uncomprehending climate scientists step in to tell journalists how to do their job. It is well known that state control of the media sounds the death knell for objective journalism, but one does not expect that sort of jackboot intolerance to be coming from the scientific community — of all places. And one certainly doesn’t expect it to come in the form of a seemingly innocent attempt to ‘correct’ an inexactitude.

I’d like to make a confident statement as to whether Dr Friederike Otto is playing the same game with her own handling of the press, but I can’t be sure. With so much hocus-pocus going on, what is a poor denier supposed to think? She tells her colleagues one thing, then she acts as if she doesn’t care about her own advice. This may be a justified ambivalence, but it’s difficult to say. And so I’ll finish as a I started, by simply asking the question: Friederike Otto, just what is your game?

12 Comments

  1. https://www.torch.ox.ac.uk/people/friederike-otto

    “Friederike (Fredi) is the Acting Director of the Environmental Change institute and an Associate Professor in the Global Climate Science Programme where she leads several projects understanding the impacts of man-made climate change on natural and social systems with a particular focus on Africa and India.

    Her main research interest is on extreme weather events (droughts, heat waves, extreme precipitation), improving and developing methodologies to answer the question ‘whether and to what extent external climate drivers alter the likelihood of extreme weather’. She furthermore investigates the policy implication of this emerging scientific field.

    Fredi is co-investigator on the international project World Weather Attribution which aims to provide an assessment of the human-influence on extreme weather in the immediate aftermath of the event occurring.”

    https://www.worldweatherattribution.org/

    According to which:

    “Western North American extreme heat virtually impossible without human-caused climate change”

    “Human-caused climate change increased the likelihood of early growing period frost in France”

    “Siberian heatwave of 2020 almost impossible without climate change”

    Make of that what you will. Then there’s this:

    https://www.worldweatherattribution.org/pathways-and-pitfalls-in-extreme-event-attribution/

    “Experiences from the World Weather Attribution collaboration: We attempt to answer the question whether and to what extent the likelihood and intensity of an observed event changed due to the anthropogenic modification of the Earth’s climate using a method called extreme event attribution.”

    In a welcome display of openness, Friederike Otto’s email address is made available on the first website linked to above. Maybe she would respond to an email seeking clarification of her views?

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  2. Thanks for highlighting these attribution studies and organizations John.

    Out here in normally sunny Ca we are flooded with similar studies. Luckily for my area, Sierra foothills, our representatives to the state level Office of Emergency Services focus their efforts on mitigating risks that they can impact in the near to mid term vs what might happen in 50 to 80 years.

    The focus of folks responsible for addressing risks out here that I have talked to pretty much agree with Sharon-

    “Given that today we have what we have, and no one also understands exactly what will happen, in what timeframe, if we change greenhouse gases or other forcing agents according to what kind of timeline, how would the proportion attributed to AGW change our adaptation response to the situation we’re presented with today?”

    “My view, based on exploring the models used in attribution studies, and having some idea about all the factors involved in big fires besides weather, is that no one really has a clue and it might not be all that helpful to pursue it because some of the uncertainty would be extraordinarily difficult to reduce, and possibly not worth the investment, when there are other questions that are more likely and more needed to be answered.”…..

    Ref-
    https://forestpolicypub.com/2021/07/11/does-attribution-to-agw-matter-in-adaptive-responses-to-wildfire-and-other-conversations-we-need-to-have/

    Mark

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  3. Mark (Hodgson),

    I can’t see myself wanting to contact Friederike Otto directly, to be honest. However, the next time she posts an article at The Conversation, she might give me cause to comment there. For example, had I been on the ball, there are one or two things I might have asked regarding the following:

    https://theconversation.com/yes-climate-change-can-affect-extreme-weather-but-there-is-still-a-lot-to-learn-136003

    In particular, the following statements may have been worth commenting upon:

    “The role played by climate change compared to other drivers of extremes – whether natural variability in weather systems, or man-made drivers such as deforestation – strongly depends on the type of extreme event and the part of the world and season they are happening in.”

    She says this and yet the resulting lack of sufficient causation never gets a mention in her press releases.

    “This branch of science remains relatively new, and far from perfect. Attribution studies, rapid and traditional alike, have been criticised by some scientists for both being too conservative and underestimating the role of climate change. They also get accused of not being cautious enough in communicating uncertainty and therefore overstating the impact of burning fossil fuels on extreme weather events. Underlying both arguments is the fact that the climate models needed for attribution studies are often not as good as one would like.”

    More to the point, are they as good as they need to be?

    “If models do not represent the full warming seen in the real world, then attribution studies can only give conservative, and arguably too conservative, estimates of the role of climate change.”

    And what if they overestimate in their representation? Why is such a possibility not even considered? How can she be so sure that the uncertainty only works in one direction?

    “Overall, while climate models are very good at representing how increases in greenhouse gases affect average temperatures, they are less good at representing more local extreme events.”

    And yet her attribution statements regarding average temperatures, and those regarding ‘more local extreme events’, are stated with equal confidence. For example, there is nothing in her press release relating to the Northwest Pacific attribution study to suggest that the methods used in that study were not particularly suited for purpose.

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  4. Mark (Kakatoa),

    Attributing human induced climate change to the causation of bush fires is very difficult since it has to end at the rising of temperatures. The rest is down to non-meteorological factors, of which there are many. The modelling techniques used to attribute temperature rise just do not apply to these other factors. As you have said, one is left with just too much conjecture to deal with. Where it matters (i.e. regarding the extent to which blame may be placed) the sufficiency is just too low and, contrary to what Friederike Otto maintains, this does matter in the courts.

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  5. Well it didn’t take long before the BBC had the chance to try out its new standard precis describing what weather attribution is telling us. Under the headline, “Met Office issues first UK extreme heat warning”:

    “Heatwaves are becoming more likely and more extreme because of human-induced climate change.”

    It seems that Ed Hawkins has had his way. I wouldn’t mind but the BBC also said:

    “Many areas will continue to reach heatwave thresholds but the amber extreme heat warning focuses on western areas where the most unusually high temperatures are likely to persist.”

    What? You mean ‘unusually high temperatures’ such as 30.2C in Cardiff and 28.2C in Dumfries and Galloway? And all this in the height of summer?

    Well, since the Met now deems these perfectly normal summer temperatures to be ‘extreme’, I think we can all look forward to Friederike’s attribution study proclaiming that summer would be almost impossible without global warming.

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-57893385

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  6. John, on a very hot summer’s day in Weston-super-Mare I came across a demo by XR. I didn’t stop to shout. But on returning to my car after doing this and that, sans-mask, two ladies carrying a banner, now dispersed from the rest, asked me what I thought about the plans to extend Bristol airport and the climate crisis generally. They were very polite as I stuggled to find words but you may not be surprised to hear that we didn’t entirely agree. “You don’t believe recent extreme events – example 1, example 2, … – were caused by man?” they asked with incredulity. One, who admitted to being 75, said she couldn’t but notice how extremes have been increasing during her lifetime, extremely. Deaths caused are massively down though, I countered, and that’s because of increasing wealth. So that’s what we should be going for. They did seem to accept some of that. And then it was time to say farewell. I’m back on Cliscep and this happens. But the attribution area is crucial, at all levels. This is a very useful thread.

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  7. Many years ago I took a statistics course as part of my first year university degree. I have forgotten most of what I was taught but one thing stands out in my memory. As part of the end of year assessment, I was given a dataset to take home and analyse. No two students were given the same dataset and the results were to be submitted the following day. In my case the data purported to be measurements taken from a given population of a species of plant. The statistical analysis was supposed to characterise that species. When I got the data home, I discovered, to my horror, that one of the plants seemed to have highly unusual growth statistics compared to the rest of the group. I calculated that the chances of this happening randomly were slim. There was therefore a good chance that this was not a plant from the same species.

    I had a quandary. Do the examiners expect me to include the outlier in my calculations or not? Since my end of term assessment depended upon me getting this answer right I thought long and hard about it. In the end I explained the problem in my answer before performing the full set of required calculations both with and without the outlier, thereby demonstrating the extent to which results were affected by inclusion of the dubious plant. I concluded my report by suggesting that the double-analysis provided an excellent example of the importance of getting the science right before embarking upon a statistical analysis. I was very worried that I may have overthought the question, but I needn’t have been. When presented with the exam results I was also asked to consider changing my degree from physics to applied statistics.

    I am recounting this anecdote because I was reminded of it when Friederike Otto et al published their analysis of the recent Northwest Pacific heatwave. As weather events go, it was so outlandish that it could be argued that it should not have been considered as an outlier within a normal distribution of weather patterns but, instead, an event of a totally different ‘species’ having its own statistical properties. The lesson I applied many years ago seemed to be applying again: Sometimes one needs a far better understanding of the science before one can draw confident conclusions from a statistical analysis.

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  8. There was one other part of my encounter with the Bristol arm of XR a week ago that I think is worth highlighting, partly because what I said may well have been influenced by this post, which I’d just read, as well as earlier, Climategate-email reflections of over ten years ago.

    First, though, on the generational front. This was three people over sixty debating the climate issue and holding radically different views on the subject. Young people meanwhile are watching Jordan Peterson interviewing Bjorn Lomborg in their droves. Peterson’s friend Bret Weinstein and his wife pick the best question of the week from groups of supportive, anti-woke young people on Discord, I only just noticed. (More of the Weinsteins anon.) Let’s not assume that we know exactly how the generations fall into neat camps. There is much we don’t know on that, as Socrates said. In effect.

    I announced myself as a climate sceptic in my first statement to the two polite XR ladies. That seemed to be a novelty for them on the streets of the Bristol area (the city I assumed they were from, which they were happy to confirm). But the patience with the unlikely specimen in front of them only went so far. I’d done Maths at Cambridge, they knew that, but how did I think I knew better than “99.9% of scientists”. That was the percentage I was up against. Inflation from the industry standard 97% was bound to occur but I confess I was amused, not impressed. Not that I showed it. I didn’t question the stat. Instead I called such scientists two-faced: they said things differently in private, among themselves, than they did publicly. The “missing heat” being a “travesty” in the Climategate emails being the key email I cited (without mentioning Kevin Trenberth). That wasn’t the message the public was getting prior to November 2009.

    And isn’t it the same with Friederike Otto of the University of Oxford so many years later? Not that I mentioned her. (Sorry John.) By now it’s fair to call the messaging on extreme events nonsense on stilts. It’s been that long in the faking. But, as my earlier report indicated, the two polite ladies had bought the public face of the message hook, line and sinker. The other face might as well not exist.

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  9. Richard,

    Yeh, these are the questions, folks.

    I’m not sure I would go so far as to call attribution studies ‘nonsense on stilts’ since they are, after all, a laudable attempt to quantify something that almost certainly exists, i.e. an increased risk of occurrence of extreme weather events. The problem comes when a science that is, at its best, still subject to significant uncertainties and, at its worst, pretty hopeless, is nevertheless presented and accepted as one that has a rock solid foundation. I’m also concerned when experts who know it provides an incomplete picture of causation forget to mention this when talking to the public, and even go so far as to deride those who try to introduce the fuller picture (you know who I am talking to Gavin).

    The reasons for the discrepancy between the private and public face of science have been a subject of discussion for this blog for some years now. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to address the subject of science and its communication without running the risk of being denounced as being anti-science. Any nuances you or I might detect are unlikely to be appreciated by XR sympathisers – of any generation.

    Nor do I think I would go so far as to accuse scientists of being two-faced, even though they will often (as Friedericke Otto has demonstrated) adopt different positions depending upon the role they are currently undertaking. It’s not for me to suggest that they are being knowingly deceitful – I think a perceived good cause can provide an individual with a lot of latitude when it comes to flexing a message. One of my favourite quotes (I think I may have used it before now in these discussions) comes from Dean Acheson, the Secretary of State for Harry S. Truman, when he was commenting upon the reliability of the expert advice Truman had been given regarding the Soviet risk to US security:

    “If we made our points clearer than the truth, we did not differ from most other educators and could hardly do otherwise”.

    I strongly suspect that this is a view to which many of the supposed 99.9% would subscribe. Sometimes they just want to make the points clearer than the truth. They may think that they could hardly do otherwise, but that doesn’t alter the fact that, in so doing, they overstep their role as scientists.

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  10. “The reasons for the discrepancy between the private and public face of science have been a subject of discussion for this blog for some years now.”

    As Richard Lindzen has pointed out for years, and has a handy video on it somewhere (lost the link), regarding the dominant narrative in the public space (which is a certainty of imminent global catastrophe), there isn’t any difference between the vast majority of mainstream scientists, and skeptic scientists. They both agree that this is wrong. And hence for that vast majority there shouldn’t in theory be any significant issue which would cause a discrepancy between their public and private faces.

    The number of genuinely ‘catastrophist’ climate-scientists, who claim the IPCC is hugely and inappropriately conservative for political reasons, or possibly even corrupt and is hiding the true nature of apocalypse, is really very small. Despite their very oversized voice / media-presence. Maybe even smaller than skeptical scientists. And the press don’t know that they’re *not* mainstream either.

    But back to that vast majority of the mainstream scientists: I think it likely that the only difference between their public and private faces is that they cower (seems to be a popular word right now) before the might of the culture that is based upon the narrative of certain imminent catastrophe. Because it could cancel them in a flash. So, not only do they (with odd exceptions) fail to vigorously challenge the narrative in the media, they probably don’t even challenge it when their daughter comes home from school with climate-anxiety or their dinner companion claims all is nearly lost and it’s time to join XR. Because not only would they rapidly end up with no friends and children who don’t talk to them and a partner who thinks they must have lost the plot, they may well lose their university position too. Or at least come in for endless ‘denier’ flak from all parts of the Uni that possess not a shred of climate-science knowledge, which is essentially all of it. This position is not really deceitful, and I can sympathise with it. But in the end, I guess it’s still cowardly.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Andy: “the dominant narrative in the public space (which is a certainty of imminent global catastrophe)”

    Yeah that’s what I had in mind. Just the narrative from the BBC will do, including the lamentable Attenbollocks in early 2019, with Michael Mann the key ‘adviser’ ie enforcer. Of course attribution studies are a cool thing to try. But all uncertainty is lost in the public space. That was true with Trenberth’s missing heat and surely is now.

    I’d be concerned about the corruption spreading inside the science, though, with Mann ascendant rather than the greats of old, of whom you mention my favourite.

    I didn’t actually say to the leading lady I was speaking to that all 99.9% of the scientists that were against me – and this was a known fact – were two-faced. I mentioned one example from November 2009 and said there were others. How many are needed until the whole field can be considered corrupt? Lindzen said they’d reached that point by 2010. He probably said it before that.

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