Posts Tagged ‘NAS’

Open letter of US NAS members on climate change and the integrity of science

May 10, 2010

The open letter of US National Academy of Science members is worth reading. After initially being behind a paywall (rather at odds with the ‘openness’ of the letter…), it is now freely available at Science.

I agree with the gist, well exemplified by the opening paragraph:

We are deeply disturbed by the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular. All citizens should understand some basic scientific facts. There is always some uncertainty associated with scientific conclusions; science never absolutely proves anything. When someone says that society should wait until scientists are absolutely certain before taking any action, it is the same as saying society should never take action. For a problem as potentially catastrophic as climate change, taking no action poses a dangerous risk for our planet.

Scientific conclusions derive from an understanding of basic laws supported by laboratory experiments, observations of nature, and mathematical and computer modeling. Like all human beings, scientists make mistakes, but the scientific process is designed to find and correct them. This process is inherently adversarial—scientists build reputations and gain recognition not only for supporting conventional wisdom, but even more so for demonstrating that the scientific consensus is wrong and that there is a better explanation.

Indeed, the scientific process is meant to ascertain that, despite scientists being human with their individual characters and inherent flaws, the collective outcome is as good a representation of reality as possible at the time. And science (including climate science) has proven to be rather good at that.

But there is nothing remotely identified in the recent events that changes the fundamental conclusions about climate change:

(i) The planet is warming due to increased concentrations of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere. A snowy winter in Washington does not alter this fact.

(ii) Most of the increase in the concentration of these gases over the last century is due to human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

(iii) Natural causes always play a role in changing Earth’s climate, but are now being overwhelmed by human-induced changes.

(iv) Warming the planet will cause many other climatic patterns to change at speeds unprecedented in modern times, including increasing rates of sea-level rise and alterations in the hydrologic cycle. Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide are making the oceans more acidic.

(v) The combination of these complex climate changes threatens coastal communities and cities, our food and water supplies, marine and freshwater ecosystems, forests, high mountain environments, and far more.

However, as Revkin notes:

The open letter letter has a defensive tone that hasn’t served scientists particularly well in the past, but is understandable given the pressures that have been mounting on this field of inquiry.”

I agree with both parts of that assessment.

Also noteworthy is the accompanying editorial by a deputy editor of the journal Science, which has a distinctly different tone to it (not dissimilar to Judith Curry’s statements):

We thus must move beyond polarizing arguments in ways that strengthen this joint commitment. The scientific community must recognize that the recent attacks stem in part from its culture and scientists’ behavior. In turn, it is time to focus on the main problem: The IPCC reports have underestimated the pace of climate change while overestimating societies’ abilities to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

I’d say that the main problem now is, that given our current understanding of climate change, how are we going to respond? There is no such thing as ‘no response’. Any action (including business as usual) is a response, and it better be decided on rationally and based on all the available evidence. That’s the way I look at it.

He also calls for more effort (and commensurate funding) towards data curation, handling and infrastructure. Perhaps that’s something we could all agree on, and perhaps those most critical of the current data handling practices could support such calls for more funding of these basic, though necessary efforts.

He ends with a good quote from Carl Sagan, which is especially apt today:

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” “This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

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