28 March 2010

Mike Wallace on Warming Myopia

Mike Wallace, a climate scientist at the University of Washington, had a provocative op-ed in the Seatlle Times last Friday. Wallace was a member of the 2001 NAS panel that was convened at the request of George W. Bush to evaluate the IPCC top line conclusions (chaired by Ralph Cicerone, present-day NAS director). That committee reaffirmed the IPCC conclusions. Wallace was also the Chair of a 2000 NAS report on reconciling surface and satellite temperature trends. He is no skeptic.

Wallace's op-ed is provocative because it suggests that we've come to focus too narrowly on climate change, and he lays some of the blame for this at the feet of the scientific community. Here is an excerpt (emphases added):

It's tempting to blame the media for fixating on global warming, but we climate scientists are partly to blame for the misplaced emphasis. Over the past 20 years we have stood by and watched as governmental and nongovernmental organizations that deal with environmental issues became more and more narrowly focused on the long-term impacts of global warming.

Meanwhile, more imminent issues relating to the sustainability of our planet's life-support system under the pressures of growing human population and the widening gap between rich and poor are not getting the attention they deserve.

By failing to foster creation of robust, broad-based advisory mechanisms, we have allowed the IPCC assessment reports to become the dominant vehicle for representing the views of the scientific community on a widening range of environmental issues. In the IPCC terminology, symptoms of environmental degradation, regardless of their cause, are labeled as impacts of climate change, and the societal response to them is framed in terms of mitigating and adapting to climate change.

Scientists still write papers and speak to the media about environmental concerns outside of the purview of the IPCC, but with so much of the world's attention riveted on climate change there is a lack of institutional infrastructure for calling attention to other issues.

Labeling issues such as reduced agricultural productivity, loss of biodiversity, pollution and the looming shortage of fresh water as "impacts of global warming" leaves the public confused and susceptible to propaganda by groups who oppose environmental regulation of any kind. With the IPCC increasingly in the spotlight, the denialists can trivialize the entire environmental crisis simply by casting doubt on the scientific consensus on global warming.

Climate scientists and their detractors are slugging it out every day in blogs and editorial pages while legislative initiatives to get governments to address environmental and resource issues remain stalled, despite broad public support for them.

At the recent Copenhagen Summit, the nations of the world were reluctant to make binding agreements to reduce their production of greenhouse gases. Given the limited public understanding of the intricacies of climate science, the human tendency to be more concerned with current issues than with what the climate will be like 100 years from now, and the glaring inequities in per capita fossil fuel consumption between countries like the United States and those like India, justifying an enlightened energy policy on the basis of concerns about global warming is a tough sell.

The negotiations might have gone better had the justification been framed in terms of conserving the world's dwindling oil reserves, stabilizing oil prices and promoting energy independence.

The current stalemate is likely to persist as long as scientists allow climate change to dominate the environmental policy agenda. In order to promote a more productive dialogue between scientists and policymakers, the discussion of adaptation and mitigation options in the policy arena needs to be reframed so that it addresses environmental degradation and sustainability in the broad sense, not just the impacts of climate change.

Wallace is right -- about the consequences of a myopic focus, the need for a more inclusive reframing and the role of the climate science community in helping maintain the myopic focus, both as silent bystander (most of the community) and actively involved in the myopic framing (those activist bloggers).

Along with Mike Hulme, Hans von Sotrch, Judy Curry and others, Mike Wallace is helping to show that there are a diversity of thoughtful views among the climate science community. The blog discussions of climate are typically colored in black and white, whereas the real world is painted in shades of gray.


  1. Here is a perfect quote that illustrate how the ideological leanings of the scientific community is corrupting the science:

    "Meanwhile, more imminent issues relating to the sustainability of our planet's life-support system under the pressures of growing human population and the **widening gap between rich and poor** are not getting the attention they deserve."

    I agree that the "sustainability of our planet's life-support system" is a scientific question that deserves investigation.

    However, the statement about the "widening gap between rich and poor" is nothing but an affirmation of left wing ideology that has nothing to do with science or the environment.

    The fact that the writer conflates the too illustrates why scientists find it difficult to get their message across to people who do not share their left wing political leanings.

  2. "while legislative initiatives to get governments to address environmental and resource issues remain stalled, despite broad public support for them."

    If there was broad support, why do legislators not support such initiatives? That would be because in democratic states, legislators have to listen to their constituents if they want to stay in office.

  3. And by the way, Roger, your example of a diversity of views apparently includes the "denialist" meme.

    This guy is just another hack ideologue, as the post above points out. He wants to "conserve the world's dwindling oil reserves?" Conserve them for what - to burn them later? That would do global warming a lot of good. He's just another "frame the argument" type who wants to keep the "dialogue between scientists and policy makers" far away from the people the policy makers represent.

  4. Raven touched on this and made a very valid point. I note a presumption of "scientists" as being some kind of monoblock of elite thinking and ability. Here's another excerpt that is telling: "Given the limited public understanding of the intricacies of climate science..." Why do climate scientists talk as if what they do is all that complicated? The "public" is just chock full of professional engineers, mathematicians, other kinds of hard scientists, etc., who have worked, thrived, and retired from jobs with far more "intricate" thinking required than one finds in climate science. That's not intended as a slam on the field, but no one who has emerged from college with even a bachelors in EE, or physics, or chemical engineering, or any number of other things, views the work of climate scientists as being remotely as challenging as what they had to go through.

  5. So yet another scientist-activist tells us we are too stupid to understand that this version of climate science, where we are all going to burn up.
    When a scientist stops trying to BS that the results can be robust when the process is deeply flawed, that will be newsworthy. When a scientist actually calls out the misanthropes and scammers for debasing the science, that will be news.
    But when an apparatchik like Wallace simply asserts, in effect, that scientists need to yell louder, and the proles need to shut up, that is not news.
    Climate science being hijacked by AGW alarmists is becoming more and more similar to when biology was hijacked by the eugenics movement.

  6. The world is quite colorful. Shades of gray are only helpful to those who wish to frame (steer) the debate in black and white terms. The "shades of gray" meme is a dodge.

    The stalemate will last as long as "climate science" continues to advocate policy before understanding the physics of climate. Once the great oscillations are modeled, folks might buy the gloom and doom.

    Wallace should argue with Abraham Lincoln if he wants to fool everyone all the time.

  7. This isn't related to this post at all, but I thought some other readers of Roger's blog might appreciate this post at the Science-based Medicine blog. The interesting bit for me as a follower of the climate debates was the discussion about being right vs. being right and being scientific---I don't think I've ever seen anyone worry about being anything but right in the climate science debates.

  8. Raven is funny. He (or she) gloms on to "widening gap between rich and poor" like Glen Beck did to "social justice" last week when he declared that anyone who uses those words is surely a socialist/commie/pig/nazi.

    Just a little more thought and Raven would see that an imbalance of wealth as severe as it is in India and Africa for instance will make it nearly impossible to control emissions since the poor will always use the cheapest and thus most polluting fuel for their energy needs. Populations in those countries are poised to boom as well.

    So, Raven, I'm sure now you can see your are peeping out of your own myopic right wing fog when you take a phrase and make it mean what YOU want it to mean.

  9. Wallace is mostly right in substance but wrong in using the "denialist" stereotype / straw man, since many "denialists" are making basically the same argument about AGW marginalizing other environmental issues. He is, perhaps unwittingly, contributing to the problem he deplores by helping to maintain the false dichotomy between "scientists" and "denialists", exacerbating the conflict that monopolizes attention.

  10. A 'provocative' op-ed? or a diversionary–albeit more meaningful–retreat from his affirmation of the IPCC report?

    **widening gap between rich and poor** - In China? or India?

  11. Well, your friend Lomborg thinks it's all spinach, and so does your friend Levitt of freakonomics fame, and Richard Tol never saw a problem that a discount rate could not handle and you don't think that tobacco is much of a problem either, so let's party like it's 1980.

  12. casey451,

    With a little more thought you would realize that the **gap** between rich and poor is a meaningless relative measure.

    The question that matters is whether the poor are getting wealthier in absolute terms. If you look at those numbers you will see that percentage of people living in poverty has consistently declined over time (in 1981 40% of the world's population lived in poverty - now a little over 20% do. That is a lot of progress)

    An increased gap only means the rich are getting richer faster which in only a problem for people that believe that something is wrong with society unless all people have exactly the same wealth (i.e. people who think like communists).

    If Wallace really meant to say that increased population was a environmental problem then that is what he should have said. As it stands he treats his political ideology as if it was a scientific issue and it should come as no surprise that people with a different political view perceive him as nothing but an ideologically motivated activist.

  13. More post normal fantasies. Not every scientist is a political correctness clone.

    From today's Guardian

    James Lovelock

    "Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while."


    Lovelock was published by his friend Edward Goldsmith, who George Monbiot described as a Black Shirt in Green Trousers

  14. Eli Rabett (11):

    Regarding previous comments you made on Richard Tol's analyses...I asked you to spell out the parts of Tol's analysis you thought were rendered incorrect by a sea level rise higher than the IPCC thinks will happen. You never did answer. Which of the 6 points that Richard Tol brought up do you think is invalidated by what you think is the underestimation of sea level rise in IPCC AR4?


  15. Well, when the gap between rich and poor gets too wide, the economy slows down .. until the rich begin spending again or investing in projects (even via charitable donations) that result in wealth creation and dissemination. If the poor have no hope they will cease being creative .. but if they get a "free ride" from government, their creativity is equally squelched

  16. "Wallace is right -- about the consequences of a myopic focus, the need for a more inclusive reframing and the role of the climate science community in helping maintain the myopic focus, both as silent bystander (most of the community) and actively involved in the myopic framing (those activist bloggers)."

    Probably so. The silence of the "expert" bystanders has allowed outrageous (and even hilarious) exaggerations, like Gore's. The average person has a pretty good bs meter and is probably not very convinced when the headlines continually proclaim that Climate Change causes mental illness and every other imaginable "bad" thing that happens. The climate scientists have shot themselves in both feet, and I don't look for a recovery.

    The basic reason for the collapse of the scam, of course, is that there is so very little evidence of a problem (and so much uncertainty) that the scientists have to hide behind notions like "the terrible complexity" and won't engage in fair debates in public (even on blogs that claim to represent "the science"). And these folks may be taking down the whole environmental movement with them!

  17. Funny. I would have figured that the climate change issue - certainly the science part, about whether we are causing global warming - would have been completely separate from the gap in wealth issue.

    When some of the "scientists" begin mixing that sort of stuff into the debate, or talk about putting democracy "on hold" their agenda comes out in clear colors.

  18. Mark: His preamble:"However, all errors point in one direction: alarmism about climate change. This suggests, at least, an inadvertent bias."

    The underestimate of sea level rise pretty much makes this a strawman, and much of the rest.

  19. This gem from James Lovelock, of all people:

    "The great climate science centres around the world are more than well aware how weak their science is. If you talk to them privately they're scared stiff of the fact that they don't really know what the clouds and the aerosols are doing. They could be absolutely running the show. We haven't got the physics worked out yet."


    There are other gems, too.

  20. "Wallace is right -- about the consequences of a myopic focus..."

    A myopic is someone who cannot see objects in the distance.

    Climate scientists are the exact opposite. They can see with great clarity what is in the distant future. They can not however, for some reason see what is right under their nose.

  21. Roger - got to agree with dagfinn - Wallace has identified a failing of the climate science community, but seems to miss the point about the "deniers." There are many of us who can't stand the "alarmist" rhetoric and attempt to link every environmental and weather issue to discussions of long term climate. Whether you are talking hurricane preparedness or fisheries or oceans or how to protect trust resources, inserting the climate fight just distracts from the issues at hand.

    When climate change is linked with every other environmental issue out there, it is very hard to have a rational discussion about how best to manage resources today.

    The push in Congress and at CEQ to make "climate change" part of every NEPA process as well as other environmental statutes such as the Endangered Species Act just places the discussion into a whole different light than it needs to be.

    Honestly, what decent fisheries biologist would not factor into their biological opinion under the ESA the impacts of changing climate factors if they are relevant to the determination at hand?

    By forcing climate into the decision making process, you change the discussion to one of "alarm" vs one of "denial." Rather than analyzing long term water trends of a river and having an evaluation based on the merits of the biology of the fish, the hydrology of the ecosystem, and the societal demands on limited water resources, the politics of climate take over.

  22. For sure there is a lot of uncertainty behind the science of climate change. Most scientists seem to agree though that climate change is taking place and that it is due to man made causes. However the man made cause is perhaps not as simple as most persons assume.

    The usual assumption is that the man made cause is the emission and acumalation of green house gases -primarily Co2 in the atmosphere. However the present levels of C02 (pardon the subscript) are around 350ppm. This is far too low to cause any measurable global warming. Water vapor in the atmosphere contributes more.

    Even if were to triple the levels to 1000ppm the level would be too low to cause global warming as the simplest of scientific calculations would show.

    However those levels would be good for a faster growth of trees and plants.

    The most likely man made cause of global warming is deforestation and urbanisation and not CO2. WE need more forests to reduce global warming and more c02 to help that growth.

    Burning fossil fuels is the first step towards returning the green forests that originally were on the surface of the earth. But long ago they got buried and became fuels.

    Trying to trap CO2 in earth by changing that to things like calcium carbonate causes a loss of potential greenery on our planet.

    CO2 is the bais of life and food.