11 March 2010

The Trouble with Climate Science

Dan Sarewitz, a professor at Arizona State University and a long-time collaborator of mine, has a great op-ed at Slate on why it is that more climate science won't aid the cause of reaching a political consensus. Sarewitz explains why waging climate politics through science is wrongheaded:

When people hold strongly conflicting values, interests, and beliefs, there is not much that science can do to compel action. Indeed, more research and more facts often make a conflict worse by providing support to competing sides in the debate, and by distracting decision-makers and the public from the underlying, political disagreement. In such cases each side will claim to have the scientific high ground.

Writing in the New York Times last week, Al Gore made exactly this point about climate change by noting that "the science has become clearer and clearer." Yes, there is a robust scientific consensus that human activity is causing the atmosphere to warm up. But so what? Decision-makers need to know how climate change will affect specific political jurisdictions, and, more importantly, what types of interventions will make a difference, over what time scales, at what costs, and to whose benefit—and whose detriment.

When it comes to questions like these, political beliefs can map nicely onto different ways of selecting, assembling, and interpreting the science. If you believe that government should intervene in markets to incentivize rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, you can justify your preference with data, theories, and models that predict increases in extreme weather events such as hurricanes, droughts, and floods. And if you believe, as do many conservatives, that government intervention in markets and in social arrangements should be kept to a minimum, you can find factual support for your views in the long-term unpredictability of regional climate behavior, the significant economic and social costs associated with shifting to more expensive energy sources, and the historical failure of government efforts to steer large-scale social and economic change.

Politics isn't about maximizing rationality, it's about finding compromises that enough people can live with to allow society to take steps in the right direction. Contrary to all our modern instincts, then, political progress on climate change requires not more scientific input into politics, but less. Value disputes that are hidden behind the scientific claims and counterclaims need to be flushed out and brought into the sunlight of democratic deliberation. Until that happens, the political system will remain in gridlock, and everyone will be convinced that they are on the side of truth.
You can read much more about Dan's views on this topic in his excellent paper titled, 'How Science Makes Environmental Controversies Worse":
Sarewitz, D., 2004. How Science makes environmental controversies worse, Environment Science and Policy 7:385-403.
These themes are ones that I also address in my book, The Honest Broker, in which I argue that science ought to play different roles in different political contexts. Science most directly influences decision making when values are shared among various parties participating in the decision making process and uncertainties are limited or bounded. Neither situation characterizes the issue of climate change.

In such a case the most appropriate roles for science are to act as an arbiter of questions posed by policy makers. In a 2007 paper Sarewitz and I described in some detail one model for how such an interaction might be structured, with the goal of providing usful information to policy makers:
Sarewitz, D. and R. A. Pielke, Jr., 2007. The neglected heart of science policy: reconciling supply of and demand for science, Environmental Science & Policy, 10:5-16.
Another option for scientists would be to participate in providing a range of alternatives for decision makers to consider, the honest broker of policy alternatives. I expand on mechanisms of honest brokering, especially as related to interdisciplinary, problem-oriented research in the following paper:
Pielke, Jr., R. A., 2010. Expert Advice and the Vast Sea of Knowledge, pp, 169-187 in A. Bogner, K.Katenhofer and H. Torgersen (eds.) Inter-und Transdisziplinaritat im Wandel? Neue Perspektiven auf problemorientierte Forschung und politikberatung, Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, Baden-Baden, Germany.
Sarewitz includes an uncomfortable admonition:
A dangerous idea has taken hold in modern politics, and the sooner it is discredited, the better. The idea is that political disagreements can be resolved by science. Its basic logic seems sensible: As good children of the Enlightenment, we should turn to science to establish the facts about problems such as climate change before deciding what policies to implement. Yet the types of things that scientists are good at figuring out don't have much to do with the types of things that politicians need to decide.
He is right: the sooner that we figure this out, the better.


  1. This is one reason why scientists need to digest Arrow's Impossibility Theorem before getting involved in politics.

  2. When you quote Sarewitz about the "dangerous idea," I am confused by your suggestions elsewhere that the IPCC, a political creation, that attempts to assert political policy through selective science, should be saved and reformed. It seems to me you are only feeding the tiger that is wired to behave in the very way you object.

  3. Things are further complicated when scientists themselves hold extreme views, and indeed it was the extreme views that initially motivated them to take up their careers.

    Arguably, the two most influential figures in modern climate science Sir John Houghton and James Hansen hold religious and political views (about their subject) that are not only inappropriate, but also completely irrational by any standards.

    It was good to see the British Institute of Physics inject some rigour into the CRU leaked emails debate.

    IOP submission

    It would be good to see real scientists (like physicists) doing a full evaluation of the state of climate science, independently of any official body.

  4. Craig hits the nail on the head.
    The IPCC is, and most likely the review of the IPCC will turn out to be, misuses of science by political elites seeking to impose policies on people under the veneer of science.
    The IPCC should be killed off. The climate scientists who have become partisan and wealthy promoters need to go away. The politicians and oportunists who have profited in social power and great wealth fromthis should be psuhed out of the public square.
    we need calm and reason to find the real political tools to deal with environmental issues. the vast industry of NGO's academics and politicians who have built great careers promoting the apoclaypse need to be shown out.

  5. 'How Science Makes Environmental Controversies Worse'

    And how did Science make the tobacco controversy worse? Or the CFC controversy? Or the acid rain controversy? Or the DDT controversy?

    Is there not some other element that is making it worse in a much bigger way? And when successful, starts blaming Science for it?

    The problem in my opinion is not so much that the political debate or PR war is about which course of action to take, as Sarewitz seems to imply. The problem is that the debate is (still) about the question whether action should be taken or not. Now, you can hardly blame Science for that, as the evidence that some form of action needs to be taken ought to be deemed sufficient by now (and is mounting as we speak).

    The main reason of the polarization in my view is that there is a fairly large group of people whose ideological view cannot accept anything that involves voluntarily changing the status quo. And so they will do anything to hinder policy, not by constructively proposing alternative policies, but by destructively sowing doubt and controversy. Facts cannot change this opinion (read for instance this piece by George Monbiot).

  6. Neven

    The problem with Monbiot is that he is an extreme right wing, environmental ideologue from an extreme right wing family. This article by Brendan O'Neill absolutely nails Monbiot for what he really is. It is worth reading all of it, because it is very funny.

    "Some time during the past five years he went to bed an hysteric, the closest thing Britain had to a nutty Nostradamus, and awoke to find himself labelled a man of reason, a ‘defender of truth’ no less, who is praised on the dust-jacket of his latest book for possessing a ‘dazzling command of science’ (only by Naomi Klein, admittedly, but still).

    How has this happened? How is it that Monbiot, who still writes the same old apocalyptic nonsense (think Book of Revelations but without the hot pokers or sex), can now pose – more than that, be hailed – as a scientific visionary? His metamorphosis from green-tinted despiser of all things modern to man with a dazzling command of science reveals a great deal about the politics of environmentalism, and how it has added a gloss of ‘scientific fact’ to long-standing middle-class prejudices against mass modern society."


  7. Approvingly citing Al Gore's op ed ignores the fact that Gore repeats there a list of discredited, hysteric claims. [And also ignores Gore's enormous vested interest as he makes millions from promoting hysteria.]

    The points about the 'debate' also ignore these key points from actual climate scientists:

    Dr. John R. Christy, a lead author on the IPCC, Professor of Atmospheric Science and Director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama--Huntsville: "Our ignorance about the climate system is enormous, and policy makers need to know that. This is an extremely complex system, and thinking we can control it is hubris."

    Prof. Richard Lindzen, MIT: "One of the things the scientific community is pretty agreed on is those things [i.e CO2 limits] will have virtually no impact on climate no matter what the models say. So the question is do you spend trillions of dollars to have no impact? And that seems like a no brainer.”

  8. Nevin

    Monbiot's most recent article on the subject of AGW belief, was accompanied by supportive comments from his friend and colleague Paul Kingsnorth.

    Some may notice a strong resonance with the views of James Hansen

    The collapse of civilisation will bring us a saner world, says Paul Kingsnorth in the Guardian

    "The writing is on the wall for industrial society, and no amount of ethical shopping or determined protesting is going to change that now. Take a civilisation built on the myth of human exceptionalism and a deeply embedded cultural attitude to "nature"; add a blind belief in technological and material progress; then fuel the whole thing with a power source that is discovered to be disastrously destructive only after we have used it to inflate our numbers and appetites beyond the point of no return."

    Compare that with the rather similar

    "When people attempt to rebel against the iron logic of nature, they come into conflict with the very same principles to which they owe their existence as human beings. Their actions against nature must lead to their own downfall."

    Adolf Hitler - Mein Kampf

    Kingsnorth worked at The Ecologist magazine with famous billionaire environmentalist, and soon to be, British MP, Zac Goldsmith.

    Guardian and New York Times journalist Jonathan Freedland wrote this on Tuesday

    "It came apart again when it emerged that Zac Goldsmith – a Green & Blacks organic chocolate bar in human form – had been a non-dom,"

    Monbiot himself used a similar metaphor, Black Shirts in Green Trousers, to describe Zac's mentor, his Uncle Edward Goldsmith, when he embraced racial segregation.

    Former Mi5 officer Peter Wright accused Zac's father, James Goldsmith and his environmentalist pal, John Aspinall of plotting a military coup against the British government in the 1960s.

    It resulted in the resignation of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, in fear of his life. A BBC documentary on the MI5 originated plot was broadcast in 2006.

    This is neither the 1930s or the 1960s, the world and characters have changed dramatically , but the underlying philosophy is the same. I still declined Mr Kingsorth's kind invitation to sort out our differences by emaiing him with my real name.

  9. The effort is to convince US citizens of the dangers seems to be losing: http://www.gallup.com/poll/126560/Americans-Global-Warming-Concerns-Continue-Drop.aspx

  10. Thanks, eric144. That was very funny indeed. BTW, I have seen a documentary featuring James Goldsmith, called The Mayfair Set. How ironic that Goldsmith's boy has turned into a commie! Or isn't he? British politics is a mess.

  11. eric144,
    That is a deeply disturbing relationship you point out.

  12. Best comment here: let physicists with no agenda look at this. How hard could that be? Take the politics out of it, entirely. Things are so bad, the Brits in Canada have created a position to communicate their climate change policy out of their embassy by using a former fund raiser for cancer causes because their media relations office isn't getting the job done. There's got to be an end to the spinning and shaping and let's get on with objectively looking at hard evidence

  13. Roger, given that there has been no warming in 15 years, that the rate of sea level rise is slowing, that there has been no change in winter snow area, that global total sea ice has shown no trend, that there has been no increase in hurricane numbers or hurricane damages, that there has been no change in global precipitation, that there has been no change in droughts, and that there has been no change in maximum river flows ... I find it hard to credit that you approvingly quote someone who says that the science of AGW is becoming clearer and clearer. See my post on WUWT at http://wattsupwiththat.com/2010/02/13/congenital-climate-abnormalities/ for details.

    What is becoming clearer and clearer is a) there is nothing happening which is unusual, or outside natural variation, or which has not happened before, and b) the supporters of the AGW hypothesis are getting frantic and desperate about that.

    The solution to that is absolutely not what Dan Sarewitz proposes. That's just a prescription for more PR and a "different role" for scientists. That doesn't solve the problem.

    The problem is that many climate scientists have lied, cheated, exaggerated, packed peer review boards, hidden data and code, prevented good research from appearing in the IPCC, and misrepresented their findings. You can't peanut butter over that scientific malfeasance with some "different role" for scientists.

    The people have now looked behind the curtain and noticed that people like Michael "I Am The Great Oz" Mann are just frauds. That doesn't require a different role for science. That requires climate scientists to clean up their own backyards.

    What we need is not a new role. What we for scientists to return to their original role - telling the truth and being transparent about their work. Anything less than honesty and accuracy and transparency is just putting makeup on a corpse ... it may look more lifelike, but it's still dead ...

  14. Re: IOP submission on physicists:

    google: CERN Colloquium, Jasper Kirkby

  15. Re: "physicists assessment".

    google Henrik Svensmark 6 part youtube

    (Physics, astronomy, oceanography, geology involved in development of this climate theory)

    involves solar activity, coupled with cosmic ray level, and our location in the milky-way