The Skepticism of Hubert Horace Lamb


Lamb’s Skepticism: Cleansing the MemoryBefore the Warming Boom

SourceBookDiscussion on Bishop Hill


Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret.

— Horace

Even during his life, the research findings and opinions of Hubert Lamb had a strangely distorted and selective influence on the climate change debate. Previously we saw how his reconstructions of regional climate variation across the last millennium have been misused in official reports as though they might indicate the global temperature anomaly. This began in 1975 when a derivative chart of winter severity for the region of Moscow served this purpose in an influential US report. This graph was subsequently re-used many times through the 1980s to indicate the global trend. Then, in 1990, the IPCC used a very different looking graph—Lamb’s extension of Gordon Manley’s central England temperature chart—which became an idol for skeptics.

In the next two posts we stay with Lamb and consider something that has remained obscure since he died in 1997, namely, his skepticism of man-made climate change. To accompany these essays, a new page is being developed as a SourceBook of Lamb’s skepticism. There you will find for the first time on the internet extensive quotation from Lamb on this topic. Our second post also contains lots of new material where it touches on  aspects of Lamb’s professional biography that are not widely known, including his struggle to fund historical research into natural climatic change before the warming scare began. But firstly, below, we begin by exploring why the views of Lamb provided here might appear surprising and in contradiction to other internet sources. What becomes evident is that Lamb’s protestations against the greenhouse warming scare present difficulties for those promoting climate alarm, especially at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU), which he founded in 1972.

Part 1: Cleansing the Collective Memory

The Wikipedia enter for Hubert Lamb tells of how he was once known as ‘the ice man.’ This claim appeared in a curious addition to the first small ‘stub’ entry on the founder of the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit. We are told that our ‘ice man’ gained his epithet because he predicted global cooling and the return of the ice age. But the main point of the inserted sentence is his redemption from this view.

He was originally known as the ‘ice man’ for his prediction of global cooling and a coming ice age but, following the UK’s exceptionally hot summer of 1976, he switched to predicting a more imminent global warming.
[wiki history]

Now, given that by 1976 the scientific controversy remained wallowing in equivocation about whether the human influence was warming or cooling [see Matthews Nov76, Peterson Sept08], and given that greenhouse warming alarm only got traction in the late 1980s, this ice-man-redemption passage in the Wikipedia entry suggests that Lamb was a harbinger of warming alarm. He was nothing of the sort.

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Millennium Idols: smash the Hockey Stick but smash the others too!

There is one temperature reconstruction of the last millennium that skeptics love to hate. And there is another that skeptics idolize in its place. The one is the ‘Hockey Stick’ northern hemisphere reconstruction, while the other appears as a schematic global trend line in the First Assessment Report of the IPCC. But neither graph is any good. They both obscure and distort the underlying science. Moreover, the skeptic’s idol itself usurped yet another dubious graph that reigned through the late 1970s and early 1980s. Thus, since global climate change anxiety emerged in the 1970s, we find a succession of three iconic millennium temperature graphs, each as different from the other as they are obscure in their scientific grounding. What is strange is that such plastic transformations are not found with the conventional reconstructions at smaller and larger timescales. The trend on the geological scale was only being refined over the same period. The large scale 100-year trend line has been more controversial. But both have maintained their general characteristics throughout the cooling and then warming alarm. So, what is it about the 1000-year timeframe? In the next couple of posts we uncover the origins of the two predecessors to the Hockey Stick. While the earliest version is as obscure in its origins as it is forgotten today (Part II), the other remains the idol of the skeptic (Part I). And so smash it we do!

Part I: The Idol of the Skeptic

(Go to Part II)

UPDATE: This essay has been modified to remove any suggestion that it challenges the following argument: Since IPCC FAR (1990) there have been those who argue on good scientific grounds that there was an extended period during the Middle Ages where the global mean temperature was warmer than the 20th Century. This being true does not contradict the main argument of this essay regarding the graph in fig 1. However, it may diminish the impact of the argument for some readers.  This essay has also been modified to credit Steve McIntyre for revealing the source of this same graph on Climate Audit 9 May 2008 (this is uncredited in Jones et al 2009 and remains uncredited on Wikipedia). See discussion on Climate Audit here  and here that includes a intermediate version of the graph in Tickell 1986.  Jones et al give another intermediate source Global Climate Change 1989, p24. I am grateful for the feedback that lead to these changes posted below and on Bishop Hill. —BernieL, 12 Sept 2013

Mediveval Warm Period in IPCC FAR 1990

fig. 1: The IPCC First Assessment offered this unreferenced schematic diagram of global temperature variation across the previous millennium. It clearly shows nearly 4 centuries during the Middle Ages warmer than the beginning of the 20th century.

A global Medieval Warm Period (global MWP) warmer than the thermal maximum of the 20th century is a skeptic’s myth first propagated by the IPCC in a single aberrant graph. Since the 1910 Geological Congress in Stockholm when the idea of a period in the Holocene generally warmer than ‘the present’ was first proposed on good evidence, until this graph was publish by the IPCC, paleoclimatology hasd never known a school of thought proposing such a period occurring during the Middle Ages. Clearing up confusion surrounding this topic is important for skeptics. Here we argue—and very much from the sceptical side—that, if ever this debate is going to rise above a political-motivated stoush, then we must get rid of the Medieval Warm Period where it is proposed globally.

An impressive global temperature graph showing a MWP rising solidly above a mid 20th century thermal maximum appears in the First Assessment Report published by the IPCC in 1990 (fig. 1). However, this graph not only misrepresents its sources but it misrepresents the science of the time, including that discussed in the accompanying text. Nonetheless, it has become the idol of the manmade climate change skepticism that emerged on the blogs in the wake of the Hockey Stick controversy. Sometimes it seems that everything that is wrong about the Hockey Stick and contemporary paleoclimatology reduces to a sly campaign to get rid of the MWP. At other times this chart is posted so as to play off the IPCC against its earlier self. Either way, the hoisting of this idol again and again only serves to oppose one form of pseudo-scientific dogma with another. What is left out is what is really worth defending in this controversy, which is evidenced-based science.

For some three years now, every time this writer witnesses yet another affirmation of this idolatry he is sure to post a cautionary comment. These comments sometimes elicit angry responses, and he is often mistaken for a trolling dogmatist of that other variety. Certainly, more explanation is required than what might be posted in a blog comment. And so, in the first part of this essay on millennium idols, here at last is an expanded explanation for why we must smash this one.
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