Monday, March 1, 2010

Communicating Climate Change and Accepting Ambiguity

Aptenodytes forsteri Emperor penguin Adults and chicks Dawson-Lambton Glacier, Antarctica. Source: Fritz Polking / WWF

Climate Progress' Blog and today's headline is about how a huge new iceberg calved in Antarctica bumped into and broke off the tongue of a glacier to form a second huge iceberg. It's summer there now and the impact of these icebergs on penguins and the local ocean circulation is potentially huge. Antarctica is, on the whole, contributing to rising ocean levels because is is loosing about 24 cubic miles of ice annually. So this gets me to a second article of interest to me there written by Clive Hamilton, an Australian ethicist and author. He calls it Manufacturing a scientific scandal" It's about the horrible accusations and pressure experienced by some of the scientists caught up in what the press calls "Climategate."
And the emails reveal the enormous external pressure they were under. They show they were constantly accused of being frauds and cheats; their work was twisted and misrepresented; and they were bombarded with vexatious freedom of information requests orchestrated by denialists. 
In short, they were caught up in a hot political debate that they did not really understand or want to be part of, yet they were the target of savvy, secretive and ruthless organisations ready to pounce on anything they said or wrote. 
This is the real story exposed of “Climategate”. Instead, the scientists in question have seen their professional reputations trashed in the world’s media for no cause, to the point where Phil Jones has been on the verge of suicide. It has been the most egregious and unfounded attack on the integrity of a profession we have ever seen.
Yet the science remains rock solid
Since the leaking of the CRU emails the worldwide press have reported a series of “mistakes” in the IPCC reports that have allowed the denial lobby to claim that the entire IPCC process and the body of climate science should be junked. It turns out that almost all of the mistakes are fabrications. How could this have happened?
The first and only significant error identified in the IPCC report is the claim that 80 per cent of Himalayan glaciers are very likely to disappear by 2035. This was a serious mistake for a scientific report that should not have got through the review process.  (It took two years for this deeply burried error to be corrected)
Other errors are discussed at Realclimate website. 
(Hamilton goes on to discuss what science has found out since "Climategate")  
Perception versus reality 
........let me make mention of a number of developments in climate science that have been published or reported in the five months since the leaking of the Climategate emails. It is evidence that warming is more alarming than previously thought yet which has been buried in the avalanche of confected stories claiming that climate scientists have exaggerated. We have just had the warmest decade on record.
  • A new study concludes that an average warming of 3-4°C (which means 7-8°C on land), previously thought to be associated with carbon dioxide concentrations of 500-600 ppmv, is now believed to be associated with concentrations of only 360-420 ppmv, a range that covers the current concentration of 385 ppmv, rising at 2 ppmv per annum. If confirmed by further research, the implications of this are terrifying. 
  • While news reports allege glacial melting has been exaggerated, the best evidence is that the rate of disappearance of glaciers is accelerating. The University of Zurich’s World Glacier Monitoring Service reports that “new data continues the global trend in strong ice loss over the past few decades”.The rate of flow into the sea of Greenland and Antarctic glaciers is accelerating, adding to sea-level rise. This augments the evidence that IPCC cautiousness led to significant underestimation of the likely extent of sea-level rise in the 21st century. 
I have tried to find some new studies that go the other way in the hope I can counterbalance this bleak story, but have not succeeded.
Over the last five months, a vast gulf has opened up between the media-stoked perception that the climate science has been exaggerated and the research-driven evidence that the true situation is worse than we thought.
Just when we should be urging immediate and deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions, the public is being lulled into disbelief, scepticism and apathy by a sustained and politically driven assault on the credibility of climate science. For this we will all pay dearly.
Comments:  Scientists are their own worst enemies when it comes to communication with the public.  Like all people in specific fields, we tend to use language that may use the same words, as the general public, but mean different things.  For greater detail see Susan Joy Hassol's article "Improving How Scientists Communicate About Climate Change."

When I was taking oral exams many years ago the Chair of my department asked me to explain my work in language a six-year old could understand.  I must have done a good job, because he complimented me on my ability to do so.  Of course I had young children at the time and maybe that helped.  I wonder though how well I really did, because when my daughter was in kindergarten she informed her class that her mother was a "radiator."  (Actually I was a health physicist—i.e., someone who worked the field of radiation protection)

One of the hazards, though of communicating with non-scientists, is that you can simplify too much and lose the nuances so important to getting at the truth of what you are talking about.  Our world seems to want "black and white" answers, whereas shades of grey are more likely to better describe the situation.  Climate change is complicated.  Lots of snow in New York City and none in coastal Maine does not mean climate change is not happening.  It just means that it's far more complicated than most people are willing to deal with.

Maybe why I like being an Anglican is that I can embrace the shades of grey and the ambiguity and live with unanswered questions.

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