Archive for the ‘musing’ Category

Lisbon reconciliation unsettling

February 4, 2011

The Lisbon climate reconciliation workshop is over and it has created a lot of blog-fodder. I’m quite intrigued by the concept and find it a worthwhile undertaking to try to assuage the tempers in the public debate. Whether this workshop was a useful step towards that goal I wouldn’t know; I wasn’t there. The stories floating around paint a bit of in-crowd picture, with participants varying from staunch contrarians, social scientists and journalists to a small handful of climate scientists at the more agnostic side of the spectrum of professional opinion. Strong proponents of the mainstream scientific view were largely absent AFAIK, as were more activist voices. (I don’t know the views of all those present, so take this characterization for what it’s worth.)

If one were to divide the whole spectrum of opinion in three categories (overplaying uncertainty – mainstream scientific view – overplaying certainty), one could say that only the former category was well represented, and perhaps some who are edging between the first and middle category. Based on the names I recognize, it definitely wasn’t a representative sample from those engaged in the public climate change debate. Which thus defeats the purpose of reconciliation a bit I guess.

Apparently RC’s Gavin Schmidt was also invited, but declined. Gavin writes that his

decision not to go was based purely on their initial assessment of why there was conflict in the climate debate. They appeared to think that it was actually related to reconstructions of medieval temperatures and differing analyses of ice extent. Since these are not even close to the reason why climate science is politicised, I saw little purpose in trying to ‘reconcile’ on points that are completely tangential to the real causes of conflict.

Somehow Gavin’s absence was twisted by Fred Pearce, who wrote that Gavin Schmidt

said the science was settled so there was nothing to discuss.

Needless to say, Gavin has said nothing of the sort (he’s said the opposite). Anonymous conference participant “tallbloke” has outed himself as the source. In a letter to the New Scientist editors, Gavin wrote:

Since, in my opinion, the causes of conflict in the climate change debate relate almost entirely to politics and not the MWP, climate sensitivity or ‘ice’, dismissing this from any discussion did not seem likely to be to help foster any reconciliation.

As an experienced climate journalist, Pearce is well aware of the baggage that the term “settled science” carries: It is often used as a strawman attack on climate science, in which context it means something like “there’s no uncertainy and therefore no need to discuss any of these scientific issues”. Gavin and most, if not all scientists, would vehemently disagree to this.

At other instances (e.g. by Simon at CaS) it is defined as “widespread agreement amongst experts on the main tenets of the issue”. Most Scientists would agree that such consensus exists (it’s hard to argue with really), but it is not at all the same as the definition often used when used as a rhetorical weapon by contrarians. So a defense that that’s how it was meant doesn’t sound convincing to me.

As Stoat rightly sais:

“the science is settled” has been one of the mantras used almost exclusively by climate denialists as a term of insult for those actually doing science (…). It is a feeble attempt at a double bind: is the science settled? ha ha, then you can’t be a scientist because real science is never settled. Is the science not settled? Oh great, then we don’t need to do anything until it is.

Update: Gavin’s response to the conference invitation conforms to his initial description of why he declined. Steve McIntyre chimed in to say that Fred Pearce had read this email as well, which makes the twisted transcription into “settled science” even weirder. Eli assembled the main back and forth’s.

Monckton climate myths resource and the Overton Window

February 1, 2011

Christopher Monckton is a skeptic who loves to recycle. He keeps re-using the same old and tired arguments. To help placing his arguments in a scientific context, you could check out this one-stop shop for Monckton misinformation:

Monckton Myths (468 x 60 pixels)

with links to the many arguments Monckton peruses.

Even though an increasing number of people who are very critical of the scientific consensus are not taken in by Monckton’s empty rhetoric, he’s still getting a lot of traction with journalists and politicians.

Another way of looking at it though is offered by Keith:

He’s so gonzo out there that he makes his side look ridiculous. So if you belonged to the climate concerned community, and you wanted to be strategic about this, then I would say the more Monckton appears in the public eye, the better he makes your side look.

There’s something to that, though it carries the danger of shifting the Overton Window (h/t Eli). This is the

“window” in the range of public reactions to ideas in public discourse, in a spectrum of all possible options on an issue. Overton described a method for moving that window, thereby including previously excluded ideas, while excluding previously acceptable ideas. The technique relies on people promoting ideas even less acceptable than the previous “outer fringe” ideas. That makes those old fringe ideas look less extreme, and thereby acceptable…..

I.e. the extreme position of Monckton makes less extreme, but still incorrect/misleading statements about climate appear acceptable. Or worse, presentable as “middle ground” between the Moncktons and Delingpoles of this world on the one side and climate science as embodied by e.g. the IPCC on the other. Whereas science -as the process of gaining understanding of physical processes- ought to be the middle ground of course, at least for physical questions such as “why is the climate changing?” We should reclaim that rightful place for science.

Richard Alley is quoted in EOS (Nov 2010) as saying, in response to the US House Hearing on Climate Change:

You have now had a discussion or a debate here between people who are giving you the blue one and people giving you the green one. This is certainly not both sides. If you want both sides, we would have to have somebody in here screaming a conniption fit on the red end, because you are hearing a very optimistic side

He is right.

On another note, the BBC recently aired some insightful documentaries providing a glimpse into the skeptical mindset. See e.g. this interview with James “interpreter-of-interpretations” Delingpole by Royal Society president Paul Nurse. Complete footage of “Science under Attack” at ClimateCrocks; a nice rundown at Hot Topic. What struck me was that Paul Nurse is so incredibly nice! And that definitely helps getting a connection with the viewers, and I think it contributed to Delingpole being caught totally off guard when confronted with Nurse’s medical analogy (“what would you do if …”). Turn off the sound and look at his body language.

Another one coming: “The Skeptics”, featuring Monckton (so far only the trailer is available outside of the UK).

Eschenbach to Trenberth: Admit uncertainty but don’t show uncertainty

January 26, 2011

Willis Eschenbach, in an open letter to Kevin Trenberth, lais bare the catch-22 for scientists-communicators:

Admit the true uncertainties.

while at the same time:

Write scientific papers that don’t center around words like “possibly” or “conceivably” or “might”.

Hmm… that might be tricky. Due to the impossibility of complying with both requests though, it’s a good recipe for presuming someone guilty until proven guilty.

There’s an important question underlying these recommendations though: How could scientist steer between the need to admit uncertainties and at the same time communicate clearly?

Update: I partly answered my own question before: It’s what we know that’s most important in communicating to the public.

Also: The catch-22 in communicating to the public; talking by means of merely providing rational information or emotive storytelling (just the facts won’t do); being angry or calm in your communication?


2010 blog round-up

January 3, 2011

I started writing this blog in mid 2008, and it was off to a quiet start. In the last months of 2009 and the start of 2010, my blog traffic gradually increased due to me chiming in on popular blog discussions on topics such as the CRU email affair or criticizing some contested ‘skeptic’ or ‘lukewarmer’.

A big change in my readership occurred in March 2010, after I wrote a post comparing different datasets of global average temperature. I was looking for a good looking graph of the major surface temperature reconstructions for use in a presentation, and after I couldn’t find one to my liking decided to prepare my own.

Now in all honesty, it wasn’t my pretty graphs that drew thousands of visitors to check out that post, but rather the verbal antics of pseudonymous commenter “VS”. It was initially picked up by Bishop Hill (causing a massive traffic spike) from where it spread to WUWT, Josh’s cartoons and others. It garnered over 2000 comments, many of which consisted of cheering VS on in his attempt to show that the increase in global average temperature could be described by a random walk (from which he later seemed to backpedal), based on a near unit root in the timeseries. But besides the expected chorus of “see, it’s all a scam/random/don’t touch my SUV!”, which got on my nerves at times, it was an interesting discussion from which I learned a thing or two. Of course, from energy balance considerations it is quite clear that the global average temperature can’t randomly walk away in any one direction without being somehow “forced” to. But I do have this desire to understand where someone else is coming from, to search for a nucleus of truth amidst the rhetoric, and to see if common ground can be reached between reasonable people who disagree.

I did a recap of this discussion in various posts thereafter (though never a proper round-up regretfully): Here, here, and my favorite: a sarcastic analogy on April fools day, followed by part 2 (not half as funny).

My site stats clearly show this post is an outlier: 45,000 views, whereas all the others are below 3000. After the big spike was over, the number of pageviews stabilized on a level a few times higher than before (~3000/week after vs ~700/week before). I think a lot of this increased traffic is due to more lively discussions taking place in the comment threads. The number of pageviews in 2010 were almost 10 times that in 2009, and in 2008 it averaged less than 100/week.

Since my recent posts are published in whole on the front page, the number of pageviews of separate posts sais more about the popularity of the discussion ensuing in the comment thread than of the head post itself (most of my pageviews are to the frontpage). That said, after the global avg temp thread the top-3 most popular discussions were:

The risk of postponing corrective action to a gradually deteriorating situation (2713)

The NIPCC report: don’t be fooled (2712)

Scott Denning to ICCC Heartland ‘conference’ gathering: “Be skeptical… be very skeptical!”  (2378)

The NIPCC post (from 2009) is popular because it’s one of the only rebuttals of their 2009 “climate change reconsidered” document, and as such is easy to find by google. The others were mainly popular because of the ensuing debate I think, though I like the post featuring Scott Denning’s excellent Heartland presentation a lot.

I don’t think these were necessarily my best posts; I’ll try to make a list of those some time later this week. Suggestions welcome, as I’m curious to hear what my readers liked or disliked.

It is clear though, even from my own blog, that antagonism sells. Posts where I’m sharply critical of something or someone tend to be more popular than thoughtful essays. Others have similar experiences I believe. Which goes to show that for many, blogs are mostly about entertainment and polarization. The challenge is to get some thoughtful reflection, discussion and critical thinking in there too.

A happy, thoughtful and fun new year everyone!

Wikileaks: not necessarily a good thing

December 11, 2010

After wikileaks spread the US cables, Hillary Clinton said something along the lines of “this is bad for International diplomacy”. I think she’s right.

Diplomatic resolution (as opposed to violent resolution) of conflict requires trust, which is undermined by this leak.

Also, some information is not meant for public consumption. Pin codes are in that category; security/police information; a list of worldwide targets that are important to the US/global security/economy that may be of interest to terrorists (now on wikileaks) also fits that bill.

Someone somewhere wrote that if the internet/wikileaks existed during the time of the camp David accord, it would not have succeeded. The idea that any and all information, be it government related or not, should be available to all seems either naïve or scarily fundamentalist to me.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t things that are important and relevant for the public to know: Some Arab states asking the US secretly to be harder on Iran, while in public being all cosy with Iran and critical of the US, is questionable to say the least.

I think whether such a leak is ethically right or wrong depends a.o. on the contents of what’s leaked: It has to show greater wrongdoing than the wrong that leaking it represents. And the effects have to be taken into account: Are they positive or negative in the long run? Both are of course highly subjective judgment calls.

Thomas Friedman had an insightful column about wikileaks, in which he argues that the US lacks leverage on the geopolitical scene. He writes:

America lacks leverage in the Middle East because we are addicted to oil. We are the addicts and they are the pushers, and addicts never tell the truth to their pushers.


We also lack leverage with the Chinese on North Korea, or with regard to the value of China’s currency, because we’re addicted to their credit.

(based on my comment at Stoat)

“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.


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.

Science ignored by politics

October 3, 2010

We have known what we know for several decades now (it’s warming; it’s due to us; it’s bad), and serious policies to tackle the problem aren’t even in sight. Of course I’m aware that there is more that influences a political decision than ‘just’ scientific expertise about important societal issues (i.e. that the “linear model” of science and politics is not realistic, to use Pielke Jr’s terminology). But still, the disconnect is just huge. Warnings based on science are ignored at our peril.

But perhaps this is more common that I’d thought? Listening to the radio the other day, I heard someone making the case that economists have warned for years that the Dutch housing market is unsustainable (economically speaking), referring to the large tax-rebate you get on your mortgage (“hypotheekrente-aftrek”).

Politicians don’t want to touch that rebate though, for fear of losing a lot of voters.

Richard Tol wrote over at Judith Curry’s

economists strongly agree that carbon taxes are superior to tradable permits

whereas often I hear that a carbon tax and rebate is politically infeasible, probably because fear of losing a lot of voters (and/or because of strong lobbying against it?).

I remember a professor (of soil science I think it was) once describing his frustrations in trying to tell politicians about important issues regarding his field of expertise, where politicians were doing things that according to him didn’t make any scientific sense.

Is there a pattern there?

And the more difficult and more important question: What can we do about it?

What makes scientific sense doesn’t necessarily make political sense. If the scientists are right though, the bill and/or regret will come sooner or later. When will we learn?

Or to quote Nobel Laureate Sherwood Rowland (referring then to ozone depletion):

What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions, if in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?

The problem is that it’s not our problem (but rather that of future generations)

September 6, 2010

Those who caused the problem are not the same as those who will carry the burden.

The more indirect the relation between their actions and the consequences, the lower the motivation to do something about it (consider e.g. the time lag between smoking and its health effects).

If someone causes a problem without having to bear the consequences themselves, their motivation to solve it becomes even smaller.

If those that are adversely affected can’t even hold you to account (e.g. because they aren’t born yet), it becomes tempting to not be bothered by the impending problem, even if you’re contributing to its cause.

There are not only equity issues with different parts of the world, but also with different generations: Intergenerational equity, an issue often mentioned by Jim Hansen. That is all the more pressing when you consider that our actions -or inactions– only take effect decades into the future:

Past and projected future temperature change under two scenario’s:

Fossil intensive (SRES A1FI)

Strong emission reductions (halved by 2050)

Note that the difference between strong emission reductions and fossil intensive becomes noticeable only after 3 decades or so: There are long time lags in the climate system.

It makes it so easy to say “it’s not our problem”…

Or is it?

Me and my daughter in the Polish Tatra mountains.

Figure above from Meinshausen et al., Nature 2009.

%d bloggers like this: