16 September 2009

81 Days - The Truth about Climate Change: "Climate Scientists Just Want to Be Popular"

I wrote a couple of days back that we can't really trust climate scientists to give us the whole truth about the climate change emergency. James Hansen is a rare example of an outspoken climate scientist digesting all the research and being honest about what it adds up to.
Thought I'd expand on this a bit, since I just found a 2007 article by James Hansen, who laments this unfortunate situation as well.

In Climate Catastrophe (New Scientist, 28 July 2007), Hansen writes:

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Why might scientists be reticent to express concerns about something so important? 

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I suspect it is because of what I call the 'John Mercer effect'. In 1978, when global warming was beginning to get attention from government agencies, Mercer suggested that global warming could lead to disastrous disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet. Although it was not obvious who was right on the science, I noticed that researchers who suggested that his paper was alarmist were regarded as more authoritative. 

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It seems to me that scientists downplaying the dangers of climate change fare better when it comes to getting funding [me: which is the opposite of the view of the deniers]. Drawing attention to the dangers of global warming may or may not have helped increase funding for the relevant scientific areas, but it surely did not help individuals like Mercer who stuck their heads out. 

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I can vouch for that from my own experience. After I published a paper in 1981 that described the likely effects of fossil fuel use, the US Department of Energy reversed a decision to fund my group's research, specifically criticising aspects of that paper. I believe there is pressure on scientists to be conservative. [...] 

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[I]n a case such as ice sheet instability and sea level rise, excessive caution also holds dangers. 'Scientific reticence' can hinder communication with the public about the dangers of global warming. We may rue reticence if it means no action is taken until it is too late to prevent future disasters. [...] 

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Reticence is fine for the IPCC. Individual scientists also can choose to stay within a comfort zone, and not worry that they may say something that proves to be slightly wrong. But perhaps we should consider our legacy from a broader perspective."


Bob Hunter, in 2030: Confronting Thermageddon in Our Lifetime (slightly different title in the USA), quotes Greenpeace's Jeremy Leggett, who attended the first IPCC meetings in 1990 in Berkshire, England. Apparently, what happened at the end of the final session is still happening today.

Leggett and others wanted more emphasis in the first climate threat assessment to be placed on the role of feedbacks, even though these are very hard to quantify and aren't generally included in climate models (note: the most recent IPCC report excluded all carbon feedbacks, and since these are already occurring at "only" +0.78 degrees C of warming (while most governments are "targeting" +2.0 degrees C!), it might be extremely wise to go beyond the IPCC, instead of sticking with them).

"'I [Leggett] urged the scientists to mention specifically what in principle the very worst case might be for a world where emissions were not cut deeply — a runaway, unstoppable greenhouse effect.' The suggestion was dismissed — not because of any scientific consensus, but because of the political judgment of the scientists themselves. A sea-level expert expressed concern that the media would 'sensationalize' any mention of anything like that. The leading U.S. scientist at the meeting was Robert Watson [...] who was still working with NASA. 'I have a problem with this,' he said, according to Leggett. 'We mustn't give policy-makers the impression that there's no point. We don't win that way.' A dubious strategy, at best: not telling the truth because it might be too much to take? There was more than a whiff of scientific elitism at work here. In retrospect, the tactic of keeping the report within the bounds of solvability, of avoiding making it seem too dark or hopeless or pointless, can be seen as probably the most critical blunder in what became a long string of miscalculations by some of the smartest people on the planet. And it only happened when the scientists tried to get political, tried to start anticipating reactions, tried to aim for a certain effect."

Anyone else see what I'm trying to get at here? Climate scientists are only human. They have the potential to become climate heroes, to save the world, but a PhD doesn't necessarily come with a cape and a large dose of courage. Climate scientists, like the rest of us, are going to have to look their children in the eyes and then figure out whether they are doing all they can do to safeguard their children's future.

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I would appreciate hearing your thoughts or questions on this post or anything else you've read here. What is your take on courage and compassion being an important part of the solution to the climate change emergency?