A climate scientist peeps above the parapet

I have been complaining for several years that no orthodox climate scientist seems to want to engage publicly in any serious, extended debate about AGW and ‘climate change’. There are encounters, and I’ve had a couple, but no public, moderated, respectful engagement between the orthodox and the dissenters. One reason is plain: the orthodox hold the power, and entering a debate can only weaken that power.

So what they do is to issue more ‘official’ statements from scientific organisations, like the one issued only a little time ago from  the American Geophysical Union, an umbrella body for many thousands of geoscientists. It is a political manifesto that in pushing the orthodox line ignores a great deal of contrary scientific evidence.

But every now and then a climate scientist sticks his or head above the parapet and says something that is contrary to the party line. Judith Curry, whose website I keep on mentioning, is one such. She herself explains that she is past worrying about promotion or grants, and is much more concerned about the current state of science. She fears that the dodgy science, and the refusal to accept that observations don’t support the party line, cannot be other than bad for the scientific profession in the long run. I wholeheartedly agree.

Dr Curry has been joined by a young British climate scientist, Tamsin Edwards, whose website I visited when it was established only months ago, and whose infrequent essays I always find worth reading. She was recently asked to write an op. ed. piece for The Guardian, and did so. Now The Guardian is an AGW pulpit, and what Tamsin Edwards wrote was not from the AGW bible at all.

‘As a climate scientist, I’m under pressure to be a political advocate. This comes mainly from environmentalists. Dan Cass, wind-farm director and solar advocate, preferred me not to waste my time debating “denialist morons” but to use political advocacy to “prevent climate catastrophe”Jeremy Grantham, environmental philanthropist, urged climate scientists to sound a “more desperate note … Be arrested if necessary.” A concerned member of the public judged my efforts at public engagement successful only if they showed “evidence of persuasion”.’

She would not buy this at all, and explained her position this way: ‘I believe advocacy by climate scientists has damaged trust in the science. We risk our credibility, our reputation for objectivity, if we are not absolutely neutral. At the very least, it leaves us open to criticism. I find much climate scepticism is driven by a belief that environmental activism has influenced how scientists gather and interpret evidence. So I’ve found my hardline approach successful in taking the politics and therefore – pun intended – the heat out of climate science discussions….  even though my scientific views are absolutely mainstream. But it’s not just about improving trust. In this highly politicised arena, climate scientists have a moral obligation to strive for impartiality. We have a platform we must not abuse. For a start, we rarely have the necessary expertise.’

And that’s not all. ‘Even scientists who are experts – such as those studying the interactions between climate, economy and politics, with “integrated assessment models” – cannot speak for us because political decisions necessarily depend on values. There are many ways to try to minimise climate change (with mitigation or geoengineering) or its impacts (adaptation) and, given a pot of money, we must decide what we most want to protect. How do we weigh up economic growth against ecosystem change? Should we prioritise the lives and lifestyles of people today or in the future? Try to limit changes in temperature or rainfall? These questions cannot be answered with scientific evidence alone. To me, then, it is simple: scientists misuse their authority if they publicise their preferred policy options.’

I think she has nailed it. As others have remarked (Roger Pielke Jr is one) ‘science’ can provide data and argument to support every position in the ‘climate change’. The ‘debate’ on it is not, and never has been, a scientific one. And if we had such a debate — the one I lament we don’t have — eventually the scientists would be forced to put their own values on the table, not just the science. And why are scientists’ values any more valuable or valid than your or mine?

I greatly prefer the adaptation approach to the mitigation one — dealing with climate hazards as they arise, rather than trying to prevent them through global decarbonisation or geo-engineering — because my historical knowledge and training tell me that humanity has survived apparent crisis after apparent crisis in the past. I’m a glass-half-full person, too, an optimist not a pessimist. And the argument that this crisis is different from all the others seems to me based on speculation and models rather than on observation. So my values and training account for my position, not the science. I don’t think there is anyone who is free of values and reliant only on the science.

Dr Edwards came in for some stick from the devoted AGW adherents who read The Guardian, and you can read more about flak on her blog, and on WUWT and Climate etc as well. But she got some plaudits as well. And when The Guardian is prepared to ask a young scientists to stick her neck out, and publish her views, it tells me that maybe the debate is moving into a more positive phase.

I hope so, anyway.



Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    Perhaps what is needed is not a debate in the conventional format, but two panels, with a moderator asking each to discuss a series of agreed questions, questions that will go to the heart of the issues. On some questions, I can well imagine both sides agreeing immediately. The questions can be carefully structured so that logical sequences of argument are maintained. I would suggest two panels of three persons, with questions addressed alternately to each panel, and any panel member responding. There should be the option for each panel of a second response. Perhaps a reasonable time limit for each response could be three minutes for the first pair of responses, and two for the optional followup response.

    Such a format should be augmented by visual presentation of charts, graphs and tables (etc) to support the responses where useful.

    Obviously we would expect the debate to be conducted courteously, to concentrate on the science and avoid discussion of values and politics as Tamsin Edwards insists. (Actually, reading her account of a good-natured panel in Europe, has prompted my suggestion today.) And hopefully, it could be conducted with some real humour as well, despite the subject matter being very serious.

    The value of such a debate could be that:

    * with media invited, there might be some useful coverage and wider discussion;
    * the proceedings could be placed on YouTube, and notified to various interested web sites (I’m sure SkepticalScience would be delighted to ensure a wide audience, and even Anthony Watts might be interested . . . );
    * I am not aware of productive “debates” in a public arena that have occurred elsewhere, and I would have thought if there had been some effective instances, I would have come across them. Who knows what sparks might be lit by such a debate?

    The problem we have presently is that the enthusiasts of both sides (and I count myself as an outed denialist), gather in clubs of their own choice, reinforce each other’s convictions, but generally do not engage with each other across the breadth of the subject. The enthusiasts do read much of the scientific argument (usually of one persuasion, or the other). But the general public does not. It is too busy, or feels ill-equipped to do so, even to read an IPCC summary, or a Bob Carter book. Or it’s not interested, or assumes that its opinions don’t matter . . . and so it relies on what it hears. And we know what that is.

    But a format of the kind I’m suggesting could be attractive to many, and a video record of the proceedings could spread globally very quickly. This is a public debate long overdue.

    Let’s toss this proposal around here, firm it up, engage the interest of well-qualified panelists and some independent moderators, and have a publicised challenge to the Climate Commission (while we still have one?). Don, I think you’re quite right about the threat such a debate would pose, and the excuses offered – “oh, we can’t offer any credibility to the denialists!” But I think we ought to have a go.

  • whyisitso says:

    Peter says “Obviously we would expect the debate to be conducted courteously”. Any conversation or discussion group session I’ve had with people who call themselves “mainstream” has descended very quickly into ad hominem insults against “denialists’. They simply will not engage in discussing science issues, which they regard as “settled”. And if the science is settled, why discuss it!

    Sceptics are better to just shut up, and if they’re young enough, just wait the several decades until this all fades into dim memory, as some new scare takes its place.

    Unlike Don, I’m a glass half empty person in this context. I’ll just have to accept the deterioration in my lifestyle (escalating energy prices, “carbon” taxes, and a general reversion to the stone age until the price of caves goes through the roof due to a huge shortage).

  • John Morland says:

    I am hoping (although doubt it will happen) an Abbott government will announce a Royal Commission into the AGW scare, the behaviour of its adherents and, the economic waste and damage to the environment their advocacy has caused.

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    The comment from whyisitso is still troubling me. “Sceptics are better to just shut up . . . ‘ Pardon me if I presume too much, but do I sense an ache in that advice, from someone who really does care, has perhaps been beaten around the ears for protesting, still cares, but feels frustrated at the intransigence of those of whom much more could have been expected? For that has often been my own experience.

    Look, whyisitso, I confess to my own intransigence – I was born with that glass half full, and I no longer expect, as once I did, that everyone should share the same optimism that I still believe we should promote. No, I’ll go to my grave, fighting. For that’s the way I want to go. At the very least, I would sadly disappoint those close to me, were I not to do so. That’s my own path, and probably irrational, one that others need not follow.

    John, I have felt the same. There has been much that has been reprehensible. Perhaps the important thing is to concentrate our attention of what we should best do now, and what we should plan. Posterity in our own lifetimes will exact accountability.

    Where to now? I’m still scratching my head about that one. But there’ll be hundreds around us with the skills, energy and capacity, as well as a modicum of wisdom, that together could do much.

  • […] be able to foretell the future have never been validated. The website of Tamsin Edwards, about whom I wrote a couple of days ago, is called ‘All Models are are Wrong … but Some are Useful’. Climate models […]

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