Posts Tagged ‘Roger Pielke Jr’

The public role of scientists

December 11, 2009

To what extent should scientists differentiate in their role as ‘pure’ scientists and their role as public educator, advocate, activist, or whatever other public role they may want to assume? James Hansen is not afraid to voice his political opinion. As expected, he is viciously attacked for that by political opponents, but others, even if not in agreement on everything he sais, give him credit for differentiating clearly between talking science and providing a personal opinion. I definitely do.

Roger Pielke Jr frequently takes issue with how scientists blur these roles. He often charges that scientists (especially those from RealClimate are a frequent target) “argue politics through science”, i.e. pretending to talk only science, but in the meantime providing a value-laden political stance. Now that all depends on what he means by “politics”.

Climate scientists more and more speak out about the need to (drastically) reduce emissions. IMHO, they do so based on an understanding of the science. Of course, it is also based on a value judgement, that the risks posed by unmitigated climate change are undesirable. Roger’s point (I think) is that this value judgement is not widely shared. He may be right in that, but I think that the vast majority of people opposing the need to curb emissions do so for reasons other than science, and then rationalize that decision by twisting the science around so that it fits their pre-conceived wish not to curb emissions. There are preciously few people who really accept the science, and still strongly argue against emission reduction.

Consider the analogy of a lifelong smoker who goes to see his doctor for breathing problems. The doctor may say: “All the indications point towards your lung function deteriorating. This is very likely related to you having smoked for X decades. In order to minimize the risk to your health, I urge you to quit smoking.”

That is what I see Gavin Schmidt and many other climate scientists doing. And I find it perfectly legitimate, even desirable, that scientists (as well as doctors) share their knowledge about risks with those who need to know.

If the doctor were to say as the last sentence instead “(…) I urge you to take these nicotine patches” he would act as a stealth advocate, since there are many more options to quit smoking that the patient may want to chose from.

If the patient is so hooked to his cigarettes, and would rather continue smoking than extend his statistical life expectancy by X months, he is free to do so. If however he rationalizes that decision by claiming “smoking isn’t bad for your health at all. My dad was 96 when he died in a car accident, and he chain-smoked his whole life!”, the doctor would be right to reply: “You’re mistaken. Smoking is definitely bad for your health. If you keep smoking, your life expectancy will be X month less than if you quit smoking, and you will have more breathing problems. It is your choice whether or not to quit smoking, but you should make your choice in the full knowledge of these consequences”.

This highlights a different problem. One could argue that by continuing to smoke, the patient really only impacts his own health negatively (and those who breath the second hand smoke; likely not the doctor). If the majority of people, and especially the people in power, decide to ignore the problem and not change the trajectory society is on, it is everybody who suffers. Even worse, those in different parts of the world, and those who have yet to be born, will suffer the most. That makes it much more difficult to just say “I don’t care if you quit smoking, as long as you realize the risks”. 

So climate scientists could perhaps be more specific about this, by saying e.g.: “You’re mistaken. Unabated CO2 emissions will very likely cause substantial climate change, with serious consequences. So you should decide your course of action based on this knowledge. If you don’t care about these risks, that is your perogative. However I do. Please find yourself another planet to experiment on.”


Comment on Pielke Jr’s main conclusions

November 4, 2009

Roger Pielke Jr invites comments “from his loudest critics” on his views regarding climate change and response strategies. I’m not even close to being his loudest critic (e.g. he’s often got interesting analyses on the policy), allthough the occasional badmouthing of scientists gets on my nerve. Anyway, here are my replies, each directly following Pielke’s point in italics.

1. There is no greenhouse gas signal in the economic or human toll record of disasters.(Pielke)
I don’t know; his work in this area appears quite robust at first sight, though many conflicting results have also been reported. The PDI (power dissipation index, a measure of hurricane power) has increased though, at least in the North Atlantic. Overall, the jury is still out on the hurricane question it seems like. It’s however not an area that I’ve looked at in detail.

2. The IPCC has dramatically underestimated the scale of the stabilization challenge. (Pielke)
I don’t know, but see also 8.

3. Geoengineering via stratospheric injection or marine cloud whitening is a bad idea. (Pielke)
At this point in time, intentionally cooling the Earth via large scale intervention is definitely a bad idea, because of the risks involved. But we may reach a point where the climate risks start to outweigh the geoengineering risks. So I think it prudent to investigate geoengineering schemes in case of climate emergencies. I agree with Ken Caldeira: “I hope I never need a parachute, but if my plane is going down in flames, I sure hope I have a parachute handy,” Caldeira said. “I hope we’ll never need geoengineering schemes, but if a climate catastrophe occurs, I sure hope we will have thought through our options carefully.” I contributed to an assessment of “other” climate reduction possibilities, for which I wrote chapter 6 on geo-engineering and air capture. In Section 6.4 the context and associated risks are discussed. In short, geoengineering should absolutely not be considered as an *alternative* to emission reduction, since the long term risks would increase to intolerable levels in such a case, and problems such as ocean acidification would continue unabated. I plan to write more about geoengineering here in the near future.

4. Air capture research is a very good idea. (Pielke)
Agreed (though it’s not a holy grail; it’s not even close to large scale implementation). I would perhaps single out biochar application as especially promising, since it appears to have numerous co-benefits. Its global scale climate mitigation effects seem to be limited though.

5. Adaptation is very important and not a trade off with mitigation. (Pielke)
Both adaptation and mitigation (emission reduction) are important, but I would emphasize the latter, since it dominates the long-term risk we expose future generations to (CO2 has a very long lifetime). Over-emphasizing the former risks de-emphasizing the latter, so it’s a tricky balance. The four basic response strategies (emission reduction – air capture – geoengineering – adaptation) are not mutually exclusive, but each of them lowers the (perceived) necessity for the other measures to be implemented (if the long lifetime of CO2 is ignored, which is well beyond the average political radarscreen).

Roger claims that “adaptation is a trade-off with mitigation just as mitigation is a trade off with military spending.” I think that a Euro spent on adaptation competes more strongly with spending it on mitigation than that it competes with spending it on the military. If anything, adaptation and mitigation are decided upon by the same department, with one overall budget. The military budget is separate (unfortunately, I may add).

It may be worthwhile to investigate potential win-win situations: Adaptation measures that simultaneously mitigate climate change, and vice versa (see chapter 4 of the same document as mentioned above for some examples, e.g. green/white roofs, reforestation, spatial planning, etc). Black carbon (soot) reduction is an example of a measure with both health and climate benefits. Those may be the politically speaking low hanging fruit.

6. Current mitigation policies, at national and international levels, are inevitably doomed to fail. (Pielke)
It all comes down to what is being decided in the political process. I am however pessimistic about the politics coming up to speed with what is known scientifically (short version) and what is possible technologically (which is a lot more than what is on the political table, see also 8). But let’s try to avoid self fulfilling prophecies.
David Keith made some pertinent comments to this:

However when people and the political community hear technical people say “can’t be done” they assume we mean that technically can’t be done and that is untrue and destructive.
It’s destructive because it hides the central moral choice: we could cut emissions if we want to, we could have started decades ago when the scientific warnings about climate change were first raised, but we decided not to. It was a choice, implicit or not. A choice that, in effect, we cared more about current consumption than we did about preserving our grandchildren’s chances to enjoy a climate like the one in which our civilization developed.

Nothing is “doomed to fail”; we have the choice.

7. An alternative approach to mitigation from that of the FCCC has better prospects for success. (Pielke)
I don’t know. Depends what the proposed alternative is I guess.

8. Current technologies are not sufficient to reach mitigation goals. (Pielke)
Perhaps that is the case for the long term, but I think it bears stressing that current technologies are hopelessly underused. David Keith, Joe Romm and others have pointed out that even with current technology we could decarbonize the entire electricity production for a few % of GDP. The per capita emissions in the US are double those in the EU. The per capita electricity use in California is a bit over half of that of the rest of the US. There’s clearly a lot more we can do with current technology and other (efficiency) measures than we are currently doing. That doesn’t negate the importance of R&D, but it’s the point I would like to stress. R&D is still needed to make emission reductions cheaper, and to make bigger and faster reductions possible. But it shouldn’t be an excuse for not doing more with the possibilities we currently have. See for a longer argument somewhat along these lines (rebutting Lomborg) here.

9. In their political enthusiasm, some leading scientists have behaved badly. (Pielke)
Without specifics, this is impossible to answer, and is bound to lead to even more misunderstanding. I could try reading your mind of course. You probably have some of your critics in mind, notably some RealClimate scientists as well as Hansen, who you have criticized. I find this very problematic. In most instances that I followed (involving Gavin Schmidt, Michael Tobis, Eric Steig, Hansen, Briffa at different occasions), I have found your and others’ criticisms off base, besides the point, largely irrelevant to the bigger picture and having the smell of a smear campaign (science-bashing). As I commented regarding the latest McIntyre affair (see my review here): “A lot of scientists are getting understandably frustrated with self-proclaimed auditors of science (and their supporters) who cast doubt about a whole scientific field by blowing minor flaws out of proportion and insinuate accusations of scientific misconduct”. Against this backdrop of a lot of people ready to embrace any little nitpicked criticism as if it overthrows the whole scientific consensus, and ignore the mountain of evidence in favour of this consensus, I can perfectly well understand that a lot of scientists (and their supporters) are getting frustrated having to deal with this behavior and (mostly) fake arguments. In the grand scheme of things, the big problem as I see it is the contempt of science and its practitioners by a sizeable segment of the general public and some high profile bloggers; if a scientist responds to faux criticism in a frustrated tone, I find that a minor flaw in comparison. Granted, they (climate scientists) are your subject of study, so you naturally focus on their behaviour, but at the same time, please consider the context in which they operate, as well as the main message they are trying to convey. In light of this, your claim that “bad behavior by the folks at Real Climate does more to hurt the cause for action than the political actions of the skeptics” is preposterous. William Connolley brought up Fred Singer as the most obvious example.

10. Leading scientific assessments have botched major issues (like disasters). (Pielke)
I don’t know.

The bottom line is that I don’t strongly disagree with Pielke Jr on many points, but that I find his choice of ‘problem areas’ to focus on peculiar and often unhelpful in light of the much bigger problems just adjacent to them (e.g. 9, 8, 5). Excluding that context risks giving a false impression of what’s going on, especially to those who are not in the loop and to those wishing to see their pre-conceived notions confirmed.

McIntyre’s role in the latest teapot tempest

October 6, 2009

This whole tempest in a teapot about the Yamal tree rings made me curious about how this story, with an analysis by Steve McIntyre at the centerpoint, gained such traction. The not-so-critical part of the blogosphere ran away with his results, blowing it way out of proportion in their haste to claim that climate science is a big sham. How much credit or blame (dependent on your viewpoint) goes to McIntyre for how this story panned out in the public mind?

Jim Bouldin gives a thoughtful rundown of the major issues.

What struck me was Roger Pielke Jr’s attack of RealClimate’s sarcastic reaction to this sorry story, and his defense of Steve McIntyre, quoting him as follows:

It is not my belief that Briffa crudely cherry picked.

Fair enough, one might think. Except that this quote is from comment number 254 in one of the Climate Audit threads. And it doesn’t particularly square with what he said elsewhere. It is most definitely not the message that his readers got (see for some collections here, here, here and here). One could reasonably argue over how much to blame the readers (as Pielke does) versus how much to blame the author (McIntyre in this case) for any ‘misunderstanding’. But judging from the vast majority of his readers who infer grave accusations from his writings, it’s fair to at least look into the latter as a possibility.

Some other quotes from McIntyre, mostly assembled second hand (a.o. commenters Andrewt, Phil Clarke and Jim Bouldin, my emphasis):

“If you can get a single dendrochronologist to support Briffa’s use of 10 trees in 1990, I’ll be flabbergasted. They will be astonished and appalled at the procedure. The young dendros will be wincing and some of them will probably be bit shell-shocked at this news. It’s very embarrassing for the field.

“In my opinion, the uniformly high age of the CRU12 relative to the Schweingruber population is suggestive of selection – in this respect, perhaps and even probably by the Russians”

“It is highly possible and even probable that the CRU selection is derived from a prior selection of old trees”

“I do not believe that they constitute a complete population of recent cores. As a result, I believe that the archive is suspect.”

“Because the selection yields such different results from a nearby population sample, there is a compelling prima facie argument that they’ve made biased picks.”

“Unfortunately, to date, people in the field have not honored this responsibility and, to an outside observer, seem to have done no more than pick the version (Yamal) that suits their bias.”

“… the resulting Yamal chronology with its enormous HS [hockeystick] blade was like crack cocaine for paleoclimatologists …”

”…But maybe this is a coincidence. One never knows – it’s climate science …”

“I’d be inclined to remove the data affected by CRU cherrypicking but will leave it in for now.”

Roger Pielke goes on to make an argument that could potentially backfire:

You guys are hilarious. There is no need to pluck out-of-context quotes from deep in comment threads to divine what McIntyre _really_ thinks. He spoke directly to this point as follows:

“I don’t wish to unintentionally feed views that I don’t hold. It is not my belief that Briffa crudely cherry picked. “

Convenienty forgetting that this quote is from comment number 254. He later mentioned that McIntyre, in a more recent headline post, denied having made such allegations:

I did not say or imply that Briffa had “purposely selected” individual cores into the chronology and clearly said otherwise.

It is not clear whether the “otherwise” refers to his comment number 254 or perhaps also to other places. However, it is clear, both from what he wrote elsewhere and what the vast majority of his readers deduced, that he successfully implied strong allegations. He’s hardly ever saying it point blank. He doesn’t need to, since his audience is all too eager to get his message.

Commenter Andrewt calls it dog-whistle politics:

You say one thing, but your choice of words means your target audience infers something quite different.

Making the insinuation subtle enough to be able to defend himself later (‘I made no such accusations’), and clear enough so that the message gets through to his supporters. Which it does: For miles over the internet, people refer to McIntyre as the source of having uncovered this ‘scandal’.

Andrewt sums it up:

Steven McIntyre unambiguously says what Gavin claimed he said. Gavin did not lie.

Steven McIntyre has now added a retraction after this comment.

Will you also add a retraction to this post and an apology to Gavin?

No reply on the latter.

Interestingly, Roger feels he is upholding important scientific standards, whereas I feel that this whole sorry story is about science bashing, which he seems to be endorsing or turning a blind eye to. I do believe, however, that he is sincere in what he thinks. But I also think it’s misplaced. I hold him, as a political scientist who frequently has interesting viewpoints to bear, to higher standards than some other parts of the blogosphere.

To McIntyre’s credit, he has set some of the more fanciful journalists straight in blowing the story out of proportion, as Phil Clarke points out:

While there is much to criticize in the handling of this data by the authors and the journals, the results do not in any way show that “AGW is a fraud” nor that this particular study was a “fraud”.

Perhaps he’s just naïve, that he doesn’t have the foresight how people will interpret his writings? It’s not that it hasn’t happened before though.

I’ll finish with two other memorable quotes from McIntyre, which shows how he levels insinuations at scientists. Or outright disgust.

Is Gavin Schmidt honest?

Try not to puke.

I’ll leave it at that.


McIntyre’s accusations of stonewalling do not seem to hold water, as Marco points out in the comments. See these quotes from ClimateAudit (2006, here and here, respectively), h/t Marco, dhogaza and Eli Rabet:

“Science (…) suggested that I contact the original authors.”

“Steve these data were produced by Swedish and Russian colleagues – will pass on your message to them
cheers, Keith” [Briffa]

Seems like he’s been barking up the wrong tree, even after it’s been pointed out to him. 

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