Posts Tagged ‘Climate science’

Is Climate Science falsifiable?

February 17, 2014

Guest post by Hans Custers. Nederlandse versie hier.

A very, ehhrmm… interesting piece on
Variable Variability, Victor Venema’s blog: Interesting what the interesting Judith Curry finds interesting. And I don’t mean interesting in a rhetoric, suggestive way; I mean it is a well-written and well-reasoned article, worth reading.

Victor writes about the meme regularly used by the anti climate science campaign, often supported by some straw man arguments, that the science of human impacts on climate would not be falsifiable. He shows it’s nonsense, by giving some examples of how it could be falsified. Or, more likely, already would have been falsified, if the science would be wrong. Victor’s post inspired me to think of more options to falsify generally accepted viewpoints in climate science. If there are any ‘climate change skeptics’ who want to contribute to real science, they might see this as a challenge. Maybe they can come up with a research proposal, based on one of the options for falsification. Like proper scientists would do.

First, a few more things about falsifiability in general. Bart wrote a concise post about the subject four years ago, explaining that a bird in the sky does not disprove gravity. What looks like a refutation at first, might on second thoughts be based on partial or total misunderstanding of the hypothesis. Natural climate forcings and variations do not exclude human impacts. Therefore, the existence of these natural factors in itself, cannot falsify anthropogenic climate change. A real skeptic is cautious about both scientific evidence and refutations. ‘Climate change skeptics’ like to mention the single black swan, that disproves the hypothesis that all swans are white. Of course that is true, unless that single black swan appears to be found near some oil spill.

Some of the falsifications that I mention later on might be somewhat cheap, or far-fetched. It is not very easy to find options to falsify the science of human impacts on climate. Not because climate scientists don’t respect philosophical principles of science, but simply because there’s such a huge amount of evidence. There are not a lot of findings that would disprove all the evidence at once. A scientific revolution of this magnitude only happens very rarely. Whoever thinks differently, doesn’t understand how science works. (more…)

The role of scientific consensus in moving the public debate forward

February 7, 2014

Mike Hulme had an interesting essay at The Conversation, the main message of which was

In the end, the only question that matters [for the public debate about climate change] is, what are we going to do about it?

Hulme correctly argues that the basic science is clear enough so that for society the important issues to discuss are not science related, but policy related. I argued much the same here. He writes:

What matters is not whether the climate is changing (it is); nor whether human actions are to blame (they are, at the very least partly and, quite likely, largely); nor whether future climate change brings additional risks to human or non-human interests (it does).

Let’s leave the minor quibble aside that AR5 puts the anthropogenic contribution at ‘extremely likely’ having caused more than half of the recent global warming.

The part where I disagree with Hulme is where he argues that showing the existence of a scientific consensus on the above (it is warming; it’s due to us; it’s bad news) somehow stands in the way of  getting society to discuss that most important question. I think the opposite is true. It is the continuous doubt about the science, sowed by those who oppose a serious discussion about what to do, that is a stumbleblock. Showing that a consensus amongst experts exists would enable society to more swiftly move on to the important conversation on what to do about it. I agree with Hulme that on this deeply ethical question there is, and ought to be, a multitude of opinions.

As Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook write in a response to Mike Hulme:

The public’s perception of that scientific consensus is necessary to stimulate political debate about solutions.

Another element that’s missing from this discussion is that scientific and ideological arguments  should be clearly distinguished from each other (“is” vs “ought”).

Unfortunately, ideological arguments are often dressed in a sciency-looking cloak. From that perspective, I appreciate the honesty in Lindzen stating blunty “we’ll all be dead by then”, the obvious implication being: so why care. That’s indeed what a lot comes down to: How do you value the future compared the present?

Andrew Dessler’s testimony on what we know about climate change

January 19, 2014

In his recent testimony, Andrew Dessler reviewed what he thinks “are the most important conclusions the climate scientific community has reached in over two centuries of work”. I think that’s a very good choice to focus on, as the basics of what we know is most important, “at least as to the thrust and direction of policy” (Herman Daly). This focus served as a good antidote to the other witness, Judith Curry, who emphasizes (and often exaggerates) uncertainty to the point of conflating it with ignorance.

Dessler mentioned the following “important points that we know with high confidence”:

1.  The climate is warming.

Let’s take this opportunity to show the updated figure by Cowtan and Way, extending their infilling method to the entire instrumental period (pause? which pause?):

Cowtan and Way - Global Avg Temp 1850 - 2012

2. Most of the recent warming is extremely likely due to emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by human activities.

This conclusion is based on several lines of evidence:

- Anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gases

- Physics of greenhouse effect

- Observed warming roughly matches what is expected

- Important role of CO2 in paleoclimate

- No alternative explanation for recent warming

- Fingerprints of enhanced greenhouse effect (e.g. stratospheric warming cooling, which was predicted before it was observed)

Dessler:

Thus, we have a standard model of climate science that is capable of explaining just about everything. Naturally, there are some things that aren’t necessarily explained by the model, just as there’re a few heavy smokers who don’t get lung cancer. But none of these are fundamental challenges to the standard model.

He goes on to explain that the so-called “hiatius” is not a fundamental challenge to our understanding of climate, though it is “an opportunity to refine and improve our understanding of [the interaction of ocean circulation, short-term climate variability, and long-term global warming].”

What about alternative theories? Any theory that wants to compete with the standard model has to explain all of the observations that the standard model can. Is there any model that can even come close to doing that?

No.

And making successful predictions would help convince scientists that the alternative theory should be taken seriously. How many successful predictions have alternative theories made?

Zero.

3. Future warming could be large 

On this point I always emphasize that the amount of future warming depends both on a combination of factors:

- the climate forcing (i.e. our emissions and other changes to the earth’ radiation budget)

- the climate sensitivity (the climate system’s response to those forcings)

- the climate response time (how fast will the system equilibrates).

Internal (unforced) variability also plays a role, but this usually averages out over long enough timescales.

4. The impacts of this are profound.

In the climate debate, we can argue about what we know or what we don’t know. Arguing about what we don’t know can give the impression that we don’t know much, even though some impacts are virtually certain.

The virtually certain impacts include:

• increasing temperatures

• more frequent extreme heat events

• changes in the distribution of rainfall

• rising seas

• the oceans becoming more acidic

Time is not our friend in this problem.

Nor is uncertainty.

The scientific community has been working on understanding the climate system for nearly 200 years. In that time, a robust understanding of it has emerged. We know the climate is warming. We know that humans are now in the driver’s seat of the climate system. We know that, over the next century, if nothing is done to rein in emissions, temperatures will likely increase enough to profoundly change the planet. I wish this weren’t true, but it is what the science tells us.

Peter Sinclair posted a video of Andrew Dessler’s testimony. Eli Rabett posted Dessler’s testimony in full.

A key distinction in the two senate hearings was that Andrew Dessler focused on what we know, whereas Judith Curry focused on what we don’t know (though “AndThenTheresPhysics” made a good point that Curry goes far beyond that, by e.g. proclaiming confidence in certain benign outcomes (e.g. regarding sensitivity) while claiming ignorance in areas where we have a half-decent, if incomplete, understanding, e.g. regarding the hiatus). I have argued before that emphasizing (let alone exaggerating) uncertainties is not the road to increase people’s understanding of the issue, where what we do know is much more important to convey (if your goal is to increase the public understanding of scientific knowledge). Alongside that I argue that much more attention is needed to explain the nature of science, which is needed to e.g. place scientific uncertainties in a proper context.

CartoonUncertainty

Herman Daly said it as follows, in a quote I’ve used regularly over the past few years:

If you jump out of an airplane you need a crude parachute more than an accurate altimeter.

Arguing whether the altimeter might be off by a few inches is interesting from a scientific/technological perspective, but for the people in the plane it’s mostly a distraction.

Gavin Schmidt and Judith Curry on Science Advocacy

December 23, 2013

Gavin gave a fantastic talk at this year’s AGU conference about science advocacy (good report on it by Yale CMForum and Dot Earth). The video is available via the AGU youtube channel:

He argued that it’s best to be explicit about one’s values and clearly distinguish when one is talking values (“ought”) and when one is talking science (“is”). I entirely agree. I would add that it’s important to distinguish recommending a generic (e.g. mitigation) vs a specific (e.g. CCS) course of action, especially when the latter is not one’s area of expertise. I wrote about the public role of scientists before, which touches on many of these same issues.

Judith Curry also chimed in, complimenting Gavin but also giving some criticism, much of which is rather off-base imho.

Both Gavin and Judith refer to this statement by Thomas Stocker at the end of the (well worth watching) IPCC AR5 video:

Continued greenhouse gas emissions cause further climate change and constitute a multicentury commitment in the future.  Therefore we conclude that limiting climate change requires substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Is this a normative statement (“ought”) or a factual statement (“is”)? Gavin claimed it’s the latter, Judith claimed it’s the former. It would be advocacy if the goal was left out, as in “we should reduce GHG emissions”. But that’s not what Stocker said. Instead, what he said comes down to “if this is the goal, then that is what needs to be done to achieve it”. Curry claims that adaptation, carbon sequestration or geoengineering would also be options to limit climate change. That’s only partly true. Adaptation doesn’t actually limit climate change, as the word says it means adapting to climate change. As such it helps in the short term (and is definitely important), but in the long term adaptation without mitigation is like mopping the floor while leaving the tap running (see also the Rabett). Carbon sequestration is a viable option to reduce atmospheric concentrations, but with current technologies it can only make a minor contribution. So it could limit climate change to a very limited extent one might say. Geoengineering is a more complicated story. Basically, it exchanges one type of climate change (temperature changes) with another type (hydrological changes), so it changes climate change.

Perhaps Stocker’s statement could have been made more specific by including e.g. something like “limiting climate change to what societies are adapted or can adapt to requires substantial and sustained reductions in GHG emissions” which I think is what he meant anyway.

Curry goes on to state ” And there is a missing element in this argument that warming is ‘bad’, which is a value judgment and has nothing to do with science.”

This is a strawman argument, as it’s not a (hidden) element in Stocker’s argument as given above. Again, it would be true if the goal was omitted or left implicit (but it wasn’t). If one feels that limiting climate change is not needed (because it’s not bad) than the needed cure (reducing emissions) is not needed, obviously. That is entirely consistent with what Stocker said.

Curry further offers the following list of “examples of potential hidden values that are rather inconvenient (because) these are why the public distrusts scientists as advocates”. I offer my comment with each (in italics). It’s not at all clear that these would all go in the direction of a bias in favor of the mainstream (as Curry seems to implicitly assume); to the contrary.

  • personal career advancement: Unclear in which direction this would most likely go.
  • research funding: idem, though this could cause a tendency to increase the apparent magnitude of uncertainties.
  • the value in terms of professional recognition (e.g. awards from professional societies) that supporting the scientific consensus can provide (recognizing the ostracism that con result from straying): No bigger reward for a scientist than to prove the scientific consensus wrong.
  • media attention: This goes in the direction of providing relatively more media attention to contrarian voices, Judith Curry herself being a good example (assuming that she wasn’t as prevalent in the media before her U-turn away from mainstream science). This got confirmed in the large survey amongst climate scientists that I conducted last year (not yet published).
  • influence within the scientific community: This hinges on using solid arguments, so usually provides the correct incentive.
  • influence at the power tables in terms public policy: Like with media attention, extreme voices seem to have disproportionate influence. Look at the regular line-up for US senate hearings for example. If you crave media attention and political influence, being loudly contrarian is a sure way to achieve that. In the Netherlands the same tendency is apparent.
  • broader political objectives that support any/all of the above: This goes more likely in the direction of downplaying rather than overplaying AGW I would argue.

Launching ClimateDialogue.org

November 14, 2012

Guestpost by ClimateDialogue editors Rob van Dorland, Bart Strengers and Marcel Crok

ClimateDialogue.org
Exploring different views on climate change

Goal of ClimateDialogue.org
ClimateDialogue.org offers a platform for discussions between invited climate scientists on important climate topics that have been subject to scientific and public debate. The goal of the platform is to explore the full range of views currently held by scientists by inviting experts with different views on the topic of discussion. We encourage the invited scientists to formulate their own personal scientific views; they are not asked to act as representatives for any particular group in the climate debate.

Obviously, there are many excellent blogs that facilitate discussions between climate experts, but as the climate debate is highly polarized and politicized, blog discussions between experts with opposing views are rare.

Background
The discovery, early 2010, of a number of errors in the Fourth IPCC Assessment Report on climate impacts (Working Group II), led to a review of the processes and procedures of the IPCC by the InterAcademy Council (IAC). The IAC-report triggered a debate in the Dutch Parliament about the reliability of climate science in general. Based on the IAC-recommendation that ‘the full range of views’ should be covered in the IPCC-reports, Parliament asked the Dutch government ‘to also involve climate skeptics in future studies on climate change’.

In response, the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment announced a number of projects that are aimed to increase this involvement. Climate Dialogue is one of these projects.

Topics
We are starting Climate Dialogue with a discussion on the causes of the decline of the Arctic Sea Ice, and the question to what extent this decline can be explained by global warming. Also, the projected timing of the first year that the Arctic will be ice free will be discussed. With respect to the latter, in its Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, IPCC anticipated that (near) ice free conditions might occur by the end of this century. Since then, several studies have indicated this could be between 2030-2050, or even earlier.

We invited three experts to take part in the discussion: Judith Curry, chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology; Walt Meier, research scientist at the National Snow & Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colorado; and Ron Lindsay, Senior Principal Physicist at the Polar Science Center of the University of Washington in Seattle.

Future topics that will be discussed  include: climate sensitivity, sea level rise, urban heat island-effects, the value of comprehensive climate models, ocean heat storage, and the warming trend over the past few decades.

Our format
Each discussion will be kicked off by a short introduction written by the editorial staff, followed by a guest blog by two or more invited scientists. The scientists will start the discussion by responding to each other’s arguments. It is not the goal of Climate Dialogue to reach a consensus, but to stimulate the discussion and to make clear what the discussants agree or disagree on and why.
To round off the discussion on a particular topic, the Climate Dialogue editor will write a summary, describing the areas of agreement and disagreement between the discussants. The participants will be asked to approve this final article, the discussion between the experts on that topic will then be closed and the editorial board will open a new discussion on a different topic.

The public (including other climate scientists) is also free to comment, but for practical reasons these comments will be shown separately.

The project organization consists of an editorial staff of three people and an advisory board of seven people, all of whom are based in the Netherlands. The editorial staff is concerned with the day-to-day operation of researching topics, finding participants for the discussion and moderating the discussions between the experts. The main task of the advisory board is to guard the neutrality of the platform and to advise the editorial staff about its activities

Editorial Staff
Project leader is Rob van Dorland of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI). Van Dorland is a senior scientist and climate advisor in the Climate Services section and is often operating at the interface between science and society.

The second member is Bart Strengers. He is a climate policy analyst and modeler in the IMAGE-project at the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) and has been involved in the discussion with climate skeptics for many years.

The third member is Marcel Crok, an investigative science writer, who published a critical book (in Dutch) about the climate debate.

Questions
We welcome comments on this blog and are happy to answer any questions regarding this project. You can send an email to info [at] climatedialogue [dot] org.

Postscript (Bart V):

(Disclaimer: I am involved in this initiative as a member of the advisory board)

I think ClimateDialogue is a unique project in both its organization (people with wildly different views are involved) and in its aim: Facilitating a public discussion between scientists with strongly differing opinions.

Discussion topics are chosen to be relevant and interesting to the general public as well as receiving scientific attention. Discussants are chosen to reflect different stances in the spectrum of scientific opinion, explicitly including ‘sceptical’ voices. Naturally, the ensuing discussion is not necessarily representative of the full spectrum of scientific discussion (painting it as such would likely lead to a ‘false balance’).

The idea is that the discussion can alleviate the polarization between ‘sceptics’ and ‘mainstreamers’ and provide some clarity in background of the (dis)agreements. Moreover, having scientists discuss their scientific disagreements in a public setting can go a long way to increase the public trust in science, which has suffered from the (imho incorrect) impression of being closed-minded. All in all, I think that ClimateDialogue provides a valuable service to both the public and the scientific debate. That doesn’t mean that it’s free of risks, but these are more in the framing and the perception than in the discussions itself. Naturally, the participation of good scientists is a necessary condition to make this experiment a success. Don’t hesitate to contact the editors (or me) if you fit the bill and are not afraid of a public debate!

Woody Guthrie award for a thinking blogger

August 16, 2011

It’s been a while since I received the Woody Guthrie award from the hands of Nick Stokes. Time to pass it on…

 

The ‘Woody Guthrie award for a thinking blogger’ goes to John Nielsen-Gammon. A professional climatologist, he also writes a very readable and insightful blog entitled Climate Abyss.

He writes about different topics, often on scientific issues (e.g. extreme weather) and occasionally also on the science-policy interface or science as a process. He is scrupulous about distinguishing these different aspects though: The physics is what it is, irrespective of his or other people’s political viewpoints (about which he hardly ever writes, if at all). 

I admire his writing for its scientific honesty, the clarity of expositions and the insights that they provide. From his forays over to CE and CA he has also shown himself to be a skilled e-debater: He understands climate change and knows how to discuss both the big picture and quite a string of detailed issues. One other thing I’d like to mention is that he seems to be a good bridge builder: Probably because he studiously refrains from appearing political, doesn’t eschew working together with contrarians (e.g. he co-authored a paper withWatts), and is respectful in his communications, he seems to be respected by (at least the less fanatical of the) contrarians. He does so without giving up on his scientific integrity however (he will still call a spade a spade), so it doesn’t (afaik) go at the cost of being respected by fellow scientists and mainstream science-minded bloggers. Kudos to John!

Read this interview to get a feel for his scientific persona. He also has a wikipedia page. See Willard for a collection of memorable ‘John N-G’ quotes.

(more…)

How science does and does not work (and how skeptics mostly fall in the latter category)

June 22, 2011

Another kick-ass article on The Conversation, providing some insights into the scientific process and the place that pseudo-skepticism takes in (or rather outside of) that process.

In science, to actually contribute at the forefront of a field one has to earn credibility, not demand it. Being taken seriously is a privilege, not a right.

In science, this privilege is earned by not only following conventional norms of honesty and transparency but by supporting one’s opinions with evidence and reasoned argument in the peer-reviewed literature.

This is what makes science self-correcting. If arguments turn out to be wrong, in time they are caught and corrected by other scientists. It is virtually impossible to publish long-refuted nonsense in good peer-reviewed journals.

(…)

an overwhelming scientific consensus does not imply the absence of contrarian voices even within the scientific community.

Over time, those contrarian voices simply fade away because no one takes them seriously, despite their shouts of “censorship” and accusations of bias.

This is not to say that a scientific consensus is never overturned.

There are well-known examples such as the Helicobacter pylori discovery in medicine, and continental drift in geology. But in both cases the arguments were won and lost in the peer-reviewed literature, not by contrarians sitting on the side-lines writing opinion pieces about how they were being oppressed.

A ‘change in paradigm’ occurs when the evidence for the prevailing theory is shown to be weak, and the evidence for a competing theory is getting stronger. That is the opposite of what has been happening in climate science over the past 150 years: The evidence of human influence on climate has been steadily accumulating from the time that it was first postulated as a prediction. Arguments against it have been shown to be either wrong or irrelevant for the big picture.

Even more so, the prevailing paradigm (that us tiny humans can’t possibly compete with the great forces of nature in affecting the earth’ climate) has been gradually overturned by the evidence which pointed out that yes, we can.

Oreskes gives a good overview of how climate science stacks up against the scientific methods (Highly recommended: “How do we know we’re not wrong?” slides and book chapter).

Back to The Conversation. Read and shudder:

One self-proclaimed “rocket scientist” who has published junk science in the opinion pages of The Australian has been quoted on aNew Zealandwebsite as saying:

“To win the political aspect of the climate debate, we have to lower the western climate establishment’s credibility with the lay person. And this paper [an accompanying picture book of thermometers] shows how you do it. It simply assembles the most easily understood points that show they are not to be entirely trusted, with lots of pictures and a minimum of text and details. It omits lots of relevant facts and is excruciatingly economical with words simply because the lay person has a very short attention span for climate arguments. The strategy of the paper is to undermine the credibility of the establishment climate scientists. That’s all. There is nothing special science-wise.”

Undermine credibility.

That’s all.

Nothing science-wise.

Are these the people one should entrust with the welfare of future generations?

The tried and tested strategy of sowing doubt in the minds of the public seems to be supplemented by a strategy of lowering the scientists’ credibility. The latter strategy seems to be at least as successful as the former, if recent events are any guide.

PS: I’m well aware that the bulk of public skepticism is not based on a well orchestrated campaign, but stems more from individual reasons (which I’ve discussed in a previous post). That does however not negate the fact that certain lines of reasoning are repeatedly used in the public debate.

Another necessary element of denial is conspiratorial thinking. Any denier sooner or later, whether an academic or not, must resort to a global conspiracy theory to negate the overwhelming evidence arrayed against them.

(…)

Just imagine the devastating rebuttal of climate change that Bob Carter could submit for peer-review if he wasn’t being oppressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and Prince Charles.

(…)

Time to close the phony debate on climate science

At a time when the oceans are accumulating heat at the rate of five Hiroshima bombs per second, are conspiracy theorists the people whom a nation should entrust with the future of our children?

The so-called “debate” on climate change has been over for decades in the peer-reviewed literature. It is time to accept the scientific consensus and move on, and to stop giving air-time to the cranks.

It is time for accountability.

Other articles on The Conversation that I enjoyed reading:

Part Two: The greenhouse effect is real: here’s why.

Part Three: Speaking science to climate policy.

Part Seven: When scientists take to the streets it’s time to listen up.

PS: Even though I chose not to use the word “denier” to describe those who don’t accept mainstream science, I did not change it from the original text as quoted. However, I do not intend to host a discussion here on the arguments pro and con of using this or the other label.

“Climategate”: lessons learned

November 23, 2010

These are some of the take-home messages or lessons from “climategate” as I see it.  They are strongly related to each other, with the overriding theme being that disagreements about climate change are not so much about the science, but rather about a clash of underlying values, ideas (e.g. related to risk perception) and ideals. Scientists are caught in the middle of this trying to defend the science against various distortions (while also having their own values, ideas and ideals of course).

- There’s no strong relation between knowledge/information and people’s perceptions: Just the facts won’t do. It’s all about the narrative. Climategate resonated because it could easily be spun into the underdog fighting the mean establishment. Scientists and those communicating the science should take a lesson from this: Don’t be such a scientist when communicating with non-scientists. Tell a story rather then flooding people with facts, numbers and uncertainty intervals. Steven Mosher, in a comment at Judith Curry’s, points to another lesson to be taken from this: Focusing on the consensus feeds into this underdog-versus-establishment narrative. I think he’s got a point there, though of course it is based on a faulty dismissal of a scientific consensus as being meaningless. Perhaps we should stress that the consensus is not monolithic, but rather concerns the big picture only, and even there it is still a bell curve of viewpoints rather than unanimous agreement.

- Climate science is embedded in a wild sea of culturally differing views, where values and ideals clash. Scientists should consider this (partly hostile) public environment when communicating about climate science. Retreating in the ivory tower of academia would be a detriment to the public discussion. I think we should consider strategically effective ways to convey scientific insights to the public and policymakers.

- The animosity towards climate science is even greater than we thought it was. Those who object to the perceived policy consequences of the mainstream scientific view go through great lengths in order to try to discredit the science. This has had an effect on how scientists and their supporters communicate (or not) with the public: Many have gotten afraid for speaking out publicly, while some others have gotten more strident or even defensive. Both reactions are understandable, even though neither are useful imho.

- Not directly a consequence of climategate, though it did bring it into clearer focus, is that there are many other aspects besides science that influence one’s policy preferences. It applies to those who argue the science as a proxy for arguing the politics, but it also applies to defenders of the science; it applies to everyone. Endless arguments about sea level rise in 2100 are perhaps not so useful when the underlying disagreement is much more about different values (e.g. about valuing the present versus the future; freedom versus responsibility; how to deal with risk) than about the Greenland ice sheet. This is tricky though, because scientists and their supporters (I really need to come up with a proper word) will still feel the need to defend the mainstream scientific view against distortions. I don’t know how to best deal with that catch 22.

- The need for increased transparency and openness of data and code is now widely shared. I think this is an inevitable and inevitably difficult process, but “climategate” reinforced the importance of such transparency for public trust and credibility. It will not convince the more fanatic “skeptics” out there, nor will it prevent such smear campaigns from happening again in the future. But it will help to make the wider public, who are more or less agnostic about the topic, more immune to various accusations of secrecy and fraud. And that’s important.

- Citizen science has taken off over the last year. I’m not sure if it’s just anecdotal evidence based on my blog reading or a sign of a real trend (where’s VS if you need him ;-) but I have a feeling that there’s much more interest and participation amongst non climate scientists in actually doing analyses themselves, most notably related to the temperature record. And some good work is coming out of that. I don’t regard it as a dramatic change in how science overall is conducted (its effect is much more on the public trust and perception), but it’s an interesting development nevertheless, and a more productive way of using one’s energy than blogospheric shouting matches.

Other reading:

Visit climatesight for a good and readable summary of “climategate”. See the Yale forum for an interesting collection of scientists’ view on lessons learnt. I get a sense that overall, many of them don’t disagree with my rant about how low of an action this was. Gavin retells the story of what happened over at RC.

 

Update: The second installment at the Yale forum is up, about science journalists’s views of lessons learned. Elizabeth Kolbert’s answer to what journalism should have learned is noteworthy (my comments in [...]):

The obvious lesson of faux scandals like “climategate” is that they tend to be created by groups or individuals with their own agendas, and journalists ought to be very wary about [uncritically] covering them. The notion that there is some huge scientific conspiracy going on, involving dozens of researchers at different institutions, is pretty implausible on its face. This goes for climate science as for all other scientific disciplines. I’m not saying it can’t happen; it’s just hard to imagine how it would work. Conversely, it’s very easy to imagine why an individual or a group with an economic or political [or ideological] interest would want to claim that such a conspiracy existed. The burden of proof ought to be very high. Instead, it seems the bar was placed ridiculously low.

Mike Hulme on the impacts of “climategate”

November 19, 2010

Mike Hulme has an editorial in the Guardian about “climategate”. It is a thoughtful piece, where he tries to take some distance from the events and see what impact they’ve had, focusing mostly on the positive:

I believe there have been major shifts in how climate science is conducted, how the climate debate is framed and how climate policy is being formed. And I believe “climategate” played a role in all three.

How climate science is conducted

As to the first, “climategate” may indeed have spurred the inevitable transition to more open source computer code and increased transparency. With the increased public and political interest, it is only natural to expect increased openness and transparency, to the extent possible and desired by scientists themselves (that last addition is not unimportant). The hope is that this could aid in the understanding of and respect for science, though that may be a little naive.

Efforts to re-examine the surface temperature record don’t signify a major shift in how climate science is conducted; they are replication exercises which, unsurprisingly, come to pretty much the same results as CRU or GISS do.  This seems merely a response to the misplaced decrease in trust in the temperature record. Overall, I don’t think the way climate science is conducted has changed dramatically as a result of this affair. It probably made a lot of scientists more afraid to speak out or more defensive when they do, neither of which is a good thing. That is the most significant impact as I see it.

How the climate debate is framed

Second, there has been a re-framing of climate change. The simple linear frame of “here’s the consensus science, now let’s make climate policy” has lost out to the more ambiguous frame: “What combination of contested political values, diverse human ideals and emergent scientific evidence can drive climate policy?”

The ‘ambiguous frame’ as Hulme calls it makes a lot of sense, and it always has. Does that signify a change? I don’t think so. Isn’t it common wisdom that there is more than just science that influences what policies are enacted? Consider e.g. this quote from the late Steve Schneider via mail to Andy Revkin:

To be risk averse is good policy in my VALUE SYSTEM — and we always must admit that how to take risks — with climate damages or costs of mitigation/adaptation — is not science but world views and risk aversion philosophy.

And as I wrote in a comment at the polarization and ideology thread:

One’s value system and circumstances influence how this risk is perceived. (…) How do you value the future vs the current (encapsulated in the discount rate), how is your sense of responsibility vs freedom, how do you weigh small probability – high impact events, those are the issues there, and they are inherently tied to one’s value system.

Hulme:

The events of the past year have finally buried the notion that scientific predictions about future climate change can be certain or precise enough to force global policy-making.

This is puzzling to me, as it seems to imply a straightforward relation between scientific certainty and policy making, whereas he just made the obviously correct point that there are other things that influence this relation. Update: I think I misinterpreted what Hulme said. Even if the science were 100% certain (which it will never be of course, by its very nature), it would still not ‘force’ a particular policy, exactly because contested values and human ideals will still enter the picture of decision making.

In effect, the big picture of what we know is clear, at least as to the ‘needed’ direction and thrust of policies (paraphrasing Herman Daly). But this direction and thrust apparently clashes with the values and ideals of a not unimportant segment of society.

The increased polarization between supporters of science and contrarians over the past year did probably contribute to putting this ‘ambiguous frame’ more into focus:

The meta-framing of climate change has therefore moved from being bi-polar – that either the scientific evidence is strong enough for action or else it is too weak for action – to being multi-polar – that narratives of climate change mobilise widely differing values which can’t be homogenised through appeals to science.

Very true.

How climate policy is being formed

Hulme’s third point, the lack of faith in reaching a global agreement on emission reductions, has much more to do with the failure of Copenhagen than with “climategate”, I think. During CoP 15 in Copenhagen, the overhyped expectations collided with the harsh reality of nations thinking mostly about their own short to medium term self interest. This classic tragedy of the commons on a global scale proved much too viscous to be easily solved.

Hulme argues that

with scientific uncertainties and complexities about the future proliferating (…) further policy fragmentation around climate change is inevitable.

Here again, Hulme seems to suggest that scientific uncertainty is the primary cause for the differences in opinion about the policy direction, in apparent contradiction to him stating earlier that contested values and ideals are also important. Is lack of scientific certainty really the limiting factor in reaching political agreement? I don’t think so. Policy fragmentation will be inevitable because people will continue to have different values and ideals and live in different circumstances, not because of scientific uncertainty (which concern the details rather than the big picture anyway).

Hulme continues:

But if such fragmentation reflects the plural, partial and provisional knowledge humans possess about the future then climate policy-making will better reflect reality. And that, I think, may be no bad thing.

Here I’ll quote a comment by Lcarey over at CaS, which captures my take quite well:

My conclusion is a little different.  IF the prevailing conclusions in a number of related fields within climate science are broadly correct, then humanity faces a global scale problem beyond the power of any given nation or small group of nations to address [except perhaps by geoengineering as a risky bandage-type strategy. BV].   In that case “fragmentation” translates into “pursuing our own short term interest, and not doing anything of great significance regarding CO2 emissions anytime soon”, which translates into “we’re screwed”


“Climategate”: The scandal that wasn’t and the scandal that was

November 17, 2010

It’s a year ago now that email correspondence of the British CRU was illegally released (*) on the internet. Over the course of heated discussions that followed, this became known as “climategate”, implying some sort of scandal.

The scandal that wasn’t

The emails were spun as if they uncovered some massive conspiracy to hide the truth. For example, some “skeptical” people and articles were badmouthed in the emails. But not because they didn’t toe “the party line” (whatever that may be); rather because some papers were deeply flawed (as is also apparent from the reviewer comments) and the behavior of some people was strongly disliked (I wonder why). Scientists in general voice their criticism without sugar on it (sorry, Willard). Steve Easterbrook gave some good insights back then into how scientists are used to communicate with other.

Of course, some unwise and some not-so-nice things were said. Haven’t you over the course of 13 years of emailing? If you had worked in a field about which there is a heated public and political debate, would people who are very hostile to your views be able to find something that they could shame you with in all those emails?

The scandal that was

The real scandal was that some people, for whatever reason, are so hostile to the science that they took this illegal step of breaking into an institute’s computer system and released private email correspondence. This was a day that the attack on science (and on scientists) arrived at a new low. Such an attack has nothing to do with sincere skepticism. Those who did this –and those who celebrate it- follow the adage of the end justifying the means, where the end apparently is to bring science on its knees. Needless to say, I hold science to be an important part of a healthy, modern society, and ignoring its insights is not a good strategy. Attacking it in ways as was done in “climategate” is scandalous.

Nature did not read the hacked emails.

(*) A recent Nature News feature about the event and how it influenced Phil Jones sais it was most likely an outside hack rather than a leak from inside:

Although the police and the university say only that the investigation is continuing, Nature understands that evidence has emerged effectively ruling out a leak from inside the CRU, as some have claimed. And other climate-research organizations are believed to have told police that their systems survived hack attempts at the same time.


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