Posted 14 November 2010
The Scientific Alliance
12th November 2010
Is this the start of a proper, open debate on climate change?
It is impossible to predict how the current obsession with climate change will be seen in a hundred years' time, but it arguably remains the defining issue of the early 21st Century. Despite the acres of newsprint and years of airtime devoted to the issue, the debate is notable for its sterility over recent years. Sceptics have been vilified by those representing the scientific and political orthodoxy and some have given back as good as they got. But the real bêtes noires of the establishment are the handful of their colleagues who dissent in any way. They are seen as traitors and are treated accordingly.
One such is Judith Curry of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Institute of Technology. She adheres to the mainstream view that climate change is at present primarily caused by burning fossil fuels and that the consequences are potentially very damaging. However, she has also tried to engage with sceptics, rather than dismissing all criticism and attacking the messenger. In particular, she has been criticised by colleagues for inviting prominent sceptics such as Steve McIntyre to her Institute. She sees this as a legitimate way to engage and win the argument; critics say this gives sceptics undue credibility.
Dr Curry now has her own blog (Climate Etc. at judithcurry.com). On this, she has recently posted Reversing the direction of the positive feedback loop and a follow-up piece. The concept of positive feedback is, of course, the basis for the entire edifice of current climate policy: the IPCC, the EU's 2020 objectives, the lot. There is little concern about serious adverse effects from higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide unless the principle of positive feedback created by increased water vapour is invoked. It is this which leads to the headline figures of average temperatures rising 6°C or more as CO2 levels rise. In this context, to use the term in relation to climate policy and politics, as Dr Curry does, is guaranteed to raise a few hackles.
For someone who thinks the mainstream view of the science is broadly right, she is remarkably open-minded and honest about the problems with the current situation. Indeed, she acts as all scientists should, but so few actually do.
Take this quote, for example:
"There has been a particularly toxic positive feedback loop between climate science and policy and politics, whose direction has arguably been reversed as result of Climategate. The scientists provided the initial impulse for this feedback loop back in the 1970's and 1980's. The enviro advocacy groups quickly saw the possibilities and ran with it, with the scientists' blessing. The enviro advocacy groups saw the climate change issue as an opportunity to enlist scientific support for their preferred energy policy solution."
She then develops the argument about the nature of the IPCC and policymaking. The conclusion of the first IPCC assessment report, in 1992, was "The size of this warming is broadly consistent with predictions of climate models, but it is also of the same magnitude as natural climate variability. . . The unequivocal detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect from observations is not likely for a decade or more."
Her take on this is "Nevertheless, the policy cart was put before the scientific horse, justified by the precautionary principle. Once the UNFCCC treaty was a done deal, the IPCC and its scientific conclusions were set on a track to become a self fulfilling prophecy. . . at the heart of the IPCC is a cadre of scientists whose careers have been made by the IPCC. These scientists have used the IPCC to jump the normal meritocracy process by which scientists achieve influence over the politics of science and policy. Not only has this brought some relatively unknown, inexperienced and possibly dubious people into positions of influence, but these people become vested in protecting the IPCC, which has become central to their own career and legitimizes playing power politics with their expertise. . . When I refer to the IPCC dogma, it is the religious importance that the IPCC holds for this cadre of scientists; they will tolerate no dissent, and seek to trample and discredit anyone who challenges the IPCC."
Coming from someone who has been regarded as one of the climate change establishment, this is pretty damning stuff. Those who see themselves as the object of Dr Curry's criticism have not been slow to respond. According to her blog, suggestions for why her behaviour has been so treacherous include:
I been duped by big oil and/or right wing think tanks
I have opened my mind so wide to skeptics that my brains have fallen out
I'm in the pay of big oil or right wing think tanks
I'm being blackmailed
I have become either physically or mentally disabled
To accuse an honest, open-minded colleague of such things speaks of something seriously amiss in the scientific world. But for those who are committed to the cause, this kind of questioning is beyond the pale. It places researchers such as Dr Curry in league with 'Big Oil' which, in the narrative favoured by many activists, orchestrates or funds the campaign to call the orthodoxy into question.
For example, Donald Brown, Associate Professor of Environmental Ethics, Science and Law, has recently posted on the Penn State Climate Ethics site a piece entitled A New Kind of Crime Against Humanity?: The Fossil Fuel Industry's Disinformation Campaign on Climate Change. In it, he says, for example "Although it may be reasonable to be somewhat skeptical about climate change models, some corporate sponsored participants in the climate change disinformation campaign have been spreading deeply misleading distortions about the science of climate change. These untruths are not based upon reasonable skepticism but outright falsification and distortions of climate change science."
This is, unfortunately, not an uncommon view in some circles. One of Dr Brown's colleagues at Penn State is Michael Mann, now director of the Earth System Science Center but best known for the controversial 'hockey stick' graph of 20th Century temperature change. He has a New Scientist article headlined Professional climate change deniers' crusade continues. Although focussed on the legal challenges brought by Virginia state Attorney General Cuccinelli, his final sentence reads "While professional climate change deniers continue their crusade against climate science, this year is likely to go down as either the warmest or the second warmest on record." There seems little chance of any meeting of minds with people such as this.
The argument from people at this end of the spectrum is not only that the 'disinformation' campaign has reduced politicians' willingness to act, but that 'climategate' played a significant role in derailing last year's Copenhagen climate summit. More open-minded observers would say that the likelihood of a binding post-Kyoto agreement emerging were slim at best.
The question is whether the breaking of ranks within the climate change establishment is one of the first signs of the return of objectivity and a true scientific debate, or whether the wagons will be circled by the diehards and the war of attrition continued. The best hope is for the extremists of all colours to be marginalised. I'm not holding my breath just yet, but there are certainly signs of movement in the right direction.
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