Feb 212008

Below is a comment that Dr Judith Curry posted recently on Steve McIntyre’s Climate Audit blog which gives some insight into the close relationship between science and politics in the minds of many climate researchers.

The author is chair of the school of earth and atmospheric sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US and a very influential member of the climate science community. She has published research papers that attempt to link an increase in hurricanes to climate change and she serves on various panels related to climate science including the National Academies’ space studies board and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s climate-research working group.

Andrew #115, I agree with your statement. While I am not skeptical about increasing CO2 causing warming, there is much to be skeptical about in future projections regarding how much warming. The IPCC makes no pretense of having nailed down “how much warming”, it gives a range of temperature increases even for a specific scenario (Steve, your request for proof of 2.5C sensitivity doesn’t make sense in this context, which is why no one has responded). What do about the warming, given the scientific uncertainties, is a great challenge. However, decision making under uncertainty is something that is routinely faced in all aspects of our life, from government policy to individual decisions. The challenge is to come up with policies and strategies that make sense, even if the warming turns out to be less than expected and will cover us even if the warming is greater than expected. In the U.S. there is a national mandate for energy security, which is almost totally consistent with reducing greenhouse gases. There are numerous health concerns associated with continued pollution of our environment from energy generation. What can we do about it? There is much to be gained from energy efficiency and conservation (for georgia tech’s efforts in this, the largest power user in atlanta, see http://www.stewardship.gatech.edu/2007stewardshipV3.pdf). There are existing alternative energy technologies that are not quite cost competitive with the subsidized fossil fuels we currently use (change the carrots and sticks, and these technologies are cost competitive). There is much promise in a number of new technologies, that need further investment. The other thing we need to do is focus on the socalled adaptation strategies. Whether or not global warming is increasing hurricanes, surely it makes sense to make our coastal cities more resilient to hurricanes. Whether or not global warming is going to increase droughts, surely Georgia needs to figure out how to manage its water resources better and make it more resilient to drought. etc. The bottom line is that such policy decisions don’t hinge on the science of whether the sensitivity is 2 or 3 or 4 degrees.

Dr Curry appears to be saying:

1) We know that there is anthropogenic global warming, but we can’t quantify its extent.

2) We must do something about this even if our understanding of the problem is so limited that we do not even know whether it poses a significant threat.

3) Even if the threat turns out to be illusory, never mind. There will still be benefits from our mistaken and futile attempts at mitigation provided we ignore the economic and social knock-on effects.

This has nothing to do with science, but everything to do with politics, and even in that context it is not a basis for formulating public policy. The desire to address the very real problems associated with pollution and resource management are not reasons for persuading policy makers and the general public that human activity is changing the climate. There seems to be a belief among some climate scientists that AGW alarmism is a legitimate vehicle for drawing attention to these problems and is therefor justified. Again this has no part to play in scientific research, but draws climate science further away from its supposed purpose – to increase our understanding of atmospheric processes – and ever more deeply into the political arena.

If an astronomer who is engaged in research has, let us say, extreme racialist views, then it is unlikely to affect their work. This would not be true of a geneticist, anthropologist or historian. There is an obvious political bias towards environmentalist among climate scientists and it seems unrealistic to expect that this will not compromise their objectivity, however conscious they may be of this danger.

I am not equating racialism with environmentalism, simply using it as an example of a deeply held political belief that is likely to have a profound influence on a person’s world view. I also accept that certain aspects of climate research may lead to the belief that humans are destroying the planet, although this discipline is as likely to attract those who are already sympathetic to this hypothesis. But the risk of unconscious bias is still the same. Only sceptics can provide a counterbalance by questioning the scientific basis for anthropogenic global warming. It is increasingly important that their voices are heard and that their views, if rational, are respected and not dismissed out of hand. This rarely happens at the moment, although Dr Curry’s willingness to engage in discussion on a sceptical blog is a courageous and most welcome development.

2 Responses to “News: When science and politics mix”

  1. Well, in addition to the irony of people in GA calling “drought” when they are still receiving more than 2x the rainfall that others manage to live with quite nicely and the apparent fact that the SE US “drought” is believed to be from a relative dearth of hurricanes rather than the predicted increase in hurricanes due to “global warming”, it turns out that those who want to stop climate “change” expect to do so through electing folks who’s main election promise is to bring “change”.

    It makes me laugh anyway.

  2. Dkny Wallets

    I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you.

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