Don't shoot the messenger
Monday, December 7, marks the opening of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. At that meeting, the leaders of the world will gather to negotiate an agreement to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The new agreement will be the world's road map for dealing with climate change, and the stakes are huge. It is fitting that the conference begins on the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, for the Copenhagen conference is sure to be an epic political battle. Indeed, the battle has already been underway for several weeks, with most of the action centering on a PR assault launched by the anti-CO2 regulation forces that sensationalized the contents of the hacked emails from the University of East Anglia. The Wall Street Journal has long been at the forefront of the battle to discredit the science of climate change and the scientists involved, and last week they launched a major offensive, publishing multiple opinion pieces. I'll critique one of these, a December 1 editorial by Bret Stephens which accuses climate scientists of having a vested interest in promoting alarmist views of the climate in order to get research funding. "All of them have been on the receiving end of climate change-related funding, so all of them must believe in the reality (and catastrophic imminence) of global warming just as a priest must believe in the existence of God", Stephens wrote.
It's always wise to follow the money when analyzing the motivations of people. However, Ph.D. atmospheric scientists are less motivated by money than, say, the typical reader of the Wall Street Journal. I am an example of that. Nobody owns more shares of Wunderground.com than I do, yet here I am criticizing the Wall Street Journal and some of the richest and most powerful corporations on the planet--hardly the sort of action that will generate more revenue for my company. Our top climate scientists are some of the most brilliant people on the planet. They could have easily made fortunes on Wall Street devising intricate schemes to hawk sub-prime mortgages or leverage obscure derivatives. Yet these people chose climate science as a career, out of a genuine curiosity about how the world works and desire to help find the truth of whether human-caused climate change poses a significant threat to humanity. The charges that these scientists are exaggerating the danger of human-caused global warming to get more funding is a personal attack on their integrity--a typical politician's ploy to avoid talking about the issues, when one has no valid arguments to bolster one's position. In my 29 years in the weather business, I've had the honor of working with many of the world's top weather and climate scientists. I can personally vouch for their integrity and commitment to pursue the scientific truth, no matter what that truth turns out to be. These are honest, incredibly hard-working public servants who are enduring a punishing assault on their integrity because they are the bearers of bad news. The Earth has plenty of pressing problems requiring the services of brilliant scientists; these public servants will always have a job, and have no need to exaggerate dangers or invent new threats in order to get more research funding. If one reads through the entire set of 3,000 emails hacked from the University of East Anglia--not just the choice few lines excerpted from chosen emails, and then spun by the anti-CO2 regulation lobby to make the scientists look bad--you will see that these scientists are the good guys. Never once is there a mention of fabricating data or fudging results to try to get more research funding. There is no conspiring to perpetate the massive "hoax" of human-caused global warming they have been accused of. Rather, we see a picture of some very smart, hardworking, and very human and imperfect scientists that are doing their best to learn the truth, and pass that information on to the rest of us. You don't get ahead in scince by fudging the data. It's publish or perish. While the peer-review system of publication is not perfect, it generally does an excellent job of rewarding those scientists who seek to publish the truth, and rejects those who do not. Published papers that turn out to be false will, in time, crumble under the weight of subsequent studies that do uncover the truth. Smart scientists tend to have big egos and hate being wrong, so there is additional motivation to publish truthful studies that will withstand the test of time and be validated by subsequent research.
Mr. Stephens uses the words "alarm" or "alarmist" four times in the editorial, and he is clearly trying to provoke an emotional reaction against those Chicken Littles guilty of raising the alarm. Speaking as an atmospheric scientist, I can tell you from long experience that we are not the wild-eyed, alarmist lot that the Wall Street Journal makes us out to be. This makes for some very dull parties (if you're not excited about discussing quasi-geostrophic theory), when we get together for a big bash. Very little alarming behavior takes place. (In fact, after I dragged my wife to three straight devastatingly dull departmental Christmas parties while I was in graduate school, she forbade me from ever requiring her to go to another.) Atmospheric scientists are not an alarmist lot--put us in quiet room with a window and give us a computer and pile of data to analyze, and we'll be as happy as a clam at high tide. The portrayal of climate scientists as alarmist, money-grubbing, dishonest hucksters out to destroy the economy to further their own selfish desires for money or fame is a common theme in climate change denial attacks, and is a very narrow-minded and ignorant one. It's more convenient to shoot the messenger than to acknowledge the truth of the bad news they're bringing.
Toleration of false alarms
It is possible that the alarms climate scientists are raising over climate change will turn out to be false. Environmental scientists have in the past issued false alarms over environmental problems that did not materialize as expected. However, we should expect and tolerate some degree of false alarms, given the uncertainty in forecasting these events. If our scientists never issue a false alarm, then the tolerance for issuing alarms is not correct. Would you criticize the National Weather Service for issuing a tornado warning when a possible tornado signature is spotted on Doppler radar, since less than half of these signatures result in in an actual tornado touchdown? Or the National Hurricane Center for issuing a hurricane warning, since only 25% of the warned coast receives hurricane-force winds, on average? No, some degree of false alarms must be tolerated. Our weather forecasters are dedicated public servants, doing their job of warning the public when their best scientific judgment indicates that there might be a significant threat. It is no different with our climate scientists. They are predicting that there is a greater than 90% chance that most of the observed global warming is due to human causes. Climate scientists are extremely concerned about what their scientific results are saying, and are doing their utmost to warn a public resistant to acknowledging the danger. This resistance runs very deep among conservatives. A 2008 Pew Center poll found that 75% of Democrats with a college education believed that humans were responsible for global warming, while only 19% of college educated Republicans believed that. Conservatives' core belief that a capitalist, free market economy with limited regulation is the best economic system in the world is challenged by acknowledging that human-caused global warming is real and a threat. I greatly respect conservatives who can objectively evaluate the validity of global warming science while holding that core belief, for it is difficult to accept that the best economic system in the world could spawn such a self-destructive force. But as I detailed in a post last week, corporations, by law, exist to make a profit. If scientific research shows that a corporation's products may be harmful to the public health, it the obligation of the company to its shareholders to employ whatever legal means possible to cast doubt on this science, in order to protect profits. The profits of the richest and most powerful industry the planet has ever seen--the fossil fuel industry--are currently so threatened. Thus, we are being subject to history's greatest campaign to deny science, and it is keeping us from much-needed action to curb the danger. These voices are telling us what we want to hear--the danger is not real, the scientists are corrupt and are falsifying their data, the uncertainties are great, and that we cannot afford to change. But the laws of physics don't care about ideology or free market economies or election cycles. The overwhelming majority of our top climate scientists are saying that the laws of physics dictate that massive amounts of greenhouse gases, when added to the atmosphere, will cause warming that will be very damaging to civilization. If we are to limit that damage, we must act soon, for the approaching storm will grow ever stronger the longer we wait. Don't shoot the messengers-- they are on your side.
Other posts in this series
Embattled UK climate scientist steps down
The Manufactured Doubt industry and the hacked email controversy
Is more CO2 beneficial for Earth's ecosystems?
My timing of my next post will depend upon the weather.
Our Climate Change expert, Dr. Ricky Rood, is in Copenhagen for this week's crucial COP15 climate change treaty negotiations. Be sure to tune into his blog for updates on the talks. Wunderground has provided financial support for several University of Michigan students to attend the talks, and I may be featuring portions of their blogs over the coming weeks.