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.