Santer: “Loss of Innocence” for Climate Scientists

The Dana Glacier, outside Yosemite, CA.  Photo: Gretchen Weber

The Dana Glacier, outside Yosemite, CA, September 2008. Photo: Gretchen Weber

Yet another climate controversy has revived what have become increasingly common attacks on scientists’ credibility.  The latest flap arose when  the IPCC admitted on Wednesday, that its 2007 prediction that Himalayan glaciers could melt away by 2035 was unfounded.

Attacks on the integrity of scientists have brought about a “loss of innocence” in the climate science field, said Ben Santer, a Research Scientist for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

On a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Santer lamented that “Fourteen or fifteen years ago, it was possible to do science and not be too worried about being the subject of Congressional investigations, Freedom of Information Act requests, and very personal and very public attacks. Those innocent days are over now.”

Santer, who’s been a key author of some IPCC reports, said the science that goes into those reports is the most rigorous that he’s seen in his career.”If your research suggests that humans are having a pronounced effect on climate,” he continued,  “I think the expectation is that you will be subjected to tremendous scrutiny.  And some of that is appropriate, certainly in terms of the science and the integrity and credibility of the science, but unfortunately, that scrutiny is moving to very unwelcome areas, and it’s also focusing on individuals and motives, and all of this stuff is very distasteful,” he said.

Santer was joined on the call by Lonnie Thompson, a glaciologist at Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar Research Center , who raised concern that the intense and personal nature of much of the criticism climate scientists have been facing (most recently in response to the East Anglia hacked email incident, now widely known as “Climategate”) may be keeping promising young scientists out of the field at a time when they are most needed.  In the wake of the East Anglia emails, a blizzard of accusations of data manipulation blew through the blogosphere and in certain corners of the Senate.

“It does make it difficult to bring young scientists into the field,” Santer agreed.  They look at what has gone on and there is genuine concern there. They must be asking themselves, ‘Do I really want to get involved in critical but possibly contentious issues if there is the possibility that I will spend months or even  longer dealing with questions not about the science that I have done, but about my own personal integrity?'” said Santer.

Thompson affirmed that while it’s difficult to put a specific timetable on the disappearance of glaciers, the scientific evidence documenting glacier recession is overwhelming.  Research indicates that more than 90% of the world’s glaciers are receding, he said, including approximately 95% of the glaciers in the Himalayas.

“Glaciers do not have any political agenda,” said Thompson.  “They just sum up what’s happening in the environment and they retreat or react to that en masse.”

The conference call was organized by the activist Union of Concerned Scientists.

UPDATE 1/25/10
The London tabloid, the Daily Mail, reported yesterday that a lead author of the Asia chapter of the IPCC’s 2007 assessment admitted that he knew the 2035 claim was unsubstantiated, but he approved including it in the report anyway.  Murari Lal reportedly said in an interview with the Daily Mail that he knew the 2035 number came from a report that was not peer-reviewed, but that the claim of imminently disappearing glaciers would, “impact policy-makers and politicians and encourage them to take some concrete action.”

Michael Schlesinger, a professor of Atmospheric Sciences and director of the Climate Research Group at the the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign responded to the Daily Mail report with dismay.

“I am greatly saddened and deeply offended by this person’s behavior,” he wrote in an email. “A scientist does not lie nor change the facts to suit an agenda.  Rather s/he tells it as it is, as best as it is known to her/him.”

Joe Romm at Climate Progress has a spirited response to the Daily Mail story.  According to Romm (who reached Lal by phone):
[Lal] He said these were “the most vilest allegations” and denied that he ever made such assertions.  He said “I didn’t put it [the 2035 claim] in to impress policymakers….  We reported the facts about science as we knew them and as was available in the literature.”

The Heated Debate Over Temperatures

87583224As the war over warming perception spills into a new decade, the last month of 2009 provided fresh ammo for the prevailing view. According to a preliminary report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the “noughties” may have been the warmest decade on record.

And despite the rare sprinkling of snow we woke up to one December morning in the Bay Area, the report also says that 2009 will likely go down as one of the hottest years in modern history. Based on climate data from January to October, the WMO says that 2009 will likely be the fifth warmest since scientists began keeping records in 1850.

If that last claim seems improbable, you’re likely in Canada or the United States: The data shows that every continent but North America saw above-average temperatures in 2009, and that parts of Asia and Africa experienced their warmest year yet.

Dean Moosavi, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, chalked the apparent discrepancy up to the Pacific ocean phase known as La Nina, and said it’s important to note the difference between weather and climate. “Snow in Houston this week, for example, is not proof of the absence of global warming any more than a large drought in the summer is proof that global warming is occurring,” Moosavi wrote in an email to Climate Watch. “You have to look over much longer periods of time…decades at the least before you can see a climatic trend of significance.”

This is perhaps a good place to acknowledge the oft-heard claim that the planet has actually been cooling down for more than a decade. In an article published in NOAA’s online magazine ClimateWatch (not affiliated with KQED Climate Watch), David Easterling of NOAA’s Climatic Data Center explains the statistical quirk that produces that mirage.

But Moosavi says he’s not quite ready to make a pronouncement. “I am not yet convinced that the 2000’s were warmer than the 90’s at this point,” Mossavi wrote. “Given the political and economic stakes of a statement of this type…I would be very cautious before declaring the 2000’s the warmest decade.”

Stanford’s Mark Jacobson, on the other hand, was less equivocal: “As 8 of the 10 warmest years in the history of surface measurements are in the 2000’s, it is clear that the 2000s was the warmest decade on record,” he wrote in an email.

The WMO findings come on the heels of a pair of reports that indicate that despite the global recession, average temperatures are on track to rise between 4 and 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

For some perspective, the California Climate Change Center’s 2006 report on the risks of global warming predicts that a 6 C increase would have a devastating effect on the state. The report projects that a 10.5 F increase (just a little under 6 C) would result in up to 100 extra days of “extreme heat” in Los Angles and Sacramento, a 90% reduction in the Sierra snowpack and a 2-to-3-foot increase in sea levels.

The half-dozen climate scientists contacted for this post agreed that the 6 C prediction was within the realm of possibility, and most had the same answer when asked how the world should combat this risk. Stanford professor Ken Caldeira chose to respond in capital letters: “WE HAVE TO ACT NOW.”

“The question isn’t so much whether we need to take action this year or next, but rather how much more expensive and difficult are the solution and the impacts, if we delay,” Chris Field, director of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology, said. “Delaying action on climate is sort of like delaying action on paying your credit card bill. You may get by for a few months, but the problems get worse through time and more expensive to address.”

Closing the Climate Psychology Gap

A Matter of Degree is a survey of attitudes about climate change developed in partnership with Yale and George Mason Universities.

A Matter of Degree is a survey of attitudes developed by Climate Watch, in partnership with Yale and George Mason Universities.

Keep emotions out of it and meet the uncertainties head-on. Those tips are among the advice offered in a new guide for climate change communicators. Published by the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University,  “The Psychology of Climate Change Communication” is a 54-page guide available on the CRED website that attempts to help educators, journalists, and scientists communicate more clearly about the complicated, politically-charged subject of climate change.   The gist?  It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it.  Not that this is an earth-shattering revelation but it’s a good reminder to those tasked with conveying detailed scientific information to a general audience that might not have the time, context, or desire to fully process the message.

From the introduction:

… in order for climate science information to be fully absorbed by audiences, it must be actively communicated with appropriate language, metaphor, and analogy; combined with narrative storytelling; made vivid through visual imagery and experiential scenarios; balanced with scientific information; and delivered by trusted messengers in group settings.

This guide speaks to the messengers.  Key recommendations include common-sense strategies such as knowing your audience, getting their attention, and being sure to translate scientific data into concrete experience.    The guide also stresses avoiding the overuse of emotional appeals reasoning that while they may work in the short term, they could backfire down the road because people have a “finite pool of worry” and repeated emotional appeals could lead to “emotional numbing” and apathy.  Most of these recommendations sound useful for all kinds of communication — not just about climate change.

One point, however, seems especially relevant to climate change; the recommendation to directly and precisely address scientific and climatic uncertainties. In other words, meet the unknowns head-on but keep them in perspective:

Climate science uncertainty often conveys the mistaken impression that scientists are hopelessly confused about this complicated subject, when in fact scientific uncertainties about exactly how much warmer the planet will be in 100 years does not change the very high confidence scientists have that human-made greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet and are likely to continue doing so.

The guide stresses the importance of being very clear about where the uncertainties lie, because they are easy to overstate or understate, which leads to more confusion.  A particularly interesting resource is Table 4: Words with Different Meanings to Scientists and the General Public.  The table itself is a little confusing, but it gives recognition to the “language barrier” between scientists and “laymen,” a key to getting a clear message across.

A study published last month by the Pew Center for People and the Press found that the percentage of American adults who think that there is solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades has declined over the past year, from 71% to 57%. The proportion of Americans who say global temperatures are rising as a result of human activity, such as burning fossil fuels, shrank from 47% to 36% in the same period. It’s an indication that those who have taken on the mantle of communicating the current science can use a little help.

Megadose of Cli-Sci on Public Radio Friday

Just in case you can’t get enough climate science these days, public radio outlets doled out double-dose today.

Two recent climate studies were highlighted on KQED’s Forum program today. Host Dave Iverson invited me to join him, along with UC Berkeley researcher Inez Fung, author of a new study on seasons shifting from rising temperatures, and Phil Van Mantgem, who led a new USGS study on the alarming rise in tree mortality across the western U.S.

Van Mantgem then popped up on NPR’s Science Friday, followed by New York Times correspondent Andrew Revkin, author of the widely followed Dot Earth blog, who responded to recent polling on changing attitudes toward climate change.

Podcasts of both programs are available at their respective websites (linked above).

This coming week, we’ll begin our two-part series on methane’s contribution to global warming. Part One airs on The California Report on Monday morning, followed by Part Two a week later. Part One examines where methane comes from and why regulators are looking at it with new concern. In Part Two, we’ll visit a dairy farm near Modesto, where methane from cow manure is being captured and turned into electric power and steam–but not without considerable expense and frustration with regional air & water quality regulators.

Science Reporting Imperiled?

New York Times writer Andrew Revkin seems to have struck a nerve with his recent post about the apparent demise of science journalism in the mainstream media. The comments are pouring in and from what I’m reading there, the audience for this kind of reporting is devoted, even if it does too often fly under the radar of programmers and editors.

I’m pleased to observe that so far, at least, public broadcasters seem to be bucking the trend. Here at KQED, the science/environmental multimedia initiative Quest is already well established and the funding commitment we have for Climate Watch should keep us afloat for the foreseeable future.

It would appear that the erosion of science coverage in the media is a mirror image of what’s happening at the climate policy level. With the world’s economy in a tailspin, there’s a sense among many policymakers that there are bigger fish to fry than coping with the longer-term effects of climate change. Some would counter that there are few “bigger fish” than the ability of the Earth to support human life but hey, that’s not scheduled to end tomorrow and maybe your job is.

Whatever the state of the economy, responsible coverage of science is a crucial element–perhaps more so than ever–in maintaining an informed public, which in turn can set priorities accordingly.