08 March 2011

Two Views on Science and Politics

My father is testifying before the House Energy & Committee today in what will inevitably be a show hearing using climate scientists as props.  I don't expect much new or interesting to result from the hearing -- climate policy will remain unaltered and climate science will remain excessively politicized.

Having read the testimony of the various witnesses, I did note a stark contrast in how Richard Somerville presented the role of science and policy and that presented by my father.  Here is what Somerville says (PDF):
[T]he need to drastically reduce global greenhouse gas emissions is urgent, and the urgency is scientific, not political.

Mother Nature herself thus imposes a timescale on when emissions need to peak and then begin to decline rapidly. This urgency is therefore not ideological at all, but rather is due to the physics and biogeochemistry of the climate system itself. Diplomats and legislators, as well as heads of state worldwide, are powerless to alter the laws of nature and must face scientific facts and the hard evidence of scientific findings.
Contrast that with what my father says (PDF):
Decisions about government regulation are ultimately legal, administrative, legislative, and political decisions. As such they can be informed by scientific considerations, but they are not determined by them. In my testimony, I seek to share my perspectives on the science of climate based on my work in this field over the past four decades.
The differences among the witnesses on climate science or climate policy may be less important than how they view the role of science, advocacy and democracy.


  1. If legal, administrative, legislative, and political decisions that are allegedly based on science are not determined by the science than they are not based in science. They are scientifically unsubstantiated. I find this a very poor way to govern, rejecting science when it doesn't meet your political agenda.

  2. Your father is spot on. True science is apolitical and non-ideological. Only the use of science is politicized.

  3. Diplomats and legislators, as well as heads of state worldwide, are powerless to alter the laws of nature

    153,000 people will die today of something.

    How many will die do to extreme weather events?

    It's up to policy makers to determine the balance as to what 'urgent issues' are addressed and what 'urgent issues' are neglected.

  4. I totally agree with you about the distinction between science and policy. I'm also fascinated by the concept of urgency. In the case of a developing disaster, "urgent" is logically a fairly short space on the time line. Before that, it's not yet urgent. After that, it's too late. Any analysis that does not acknowledge this basic logic is likely to strain credibility. And any uncertainty about future climate (and impacts) implies uncertainty about where on the time line the "urgent" window is or will be located. The uncertainty has to be small, or there is no way to know we're inside that short time period. And "maybe it's urgent" or "maybe it's too late" are not very persuasive arguments.

  5. At best (giving Somerville the benefit of all the many, many doubts), science today tells us that it will get warmer. Somerville exposes himself as a fool when he tries to claim that the correct US policy is patently obvious from the 'fact' of future warming.

    Even assuming that some definitively proper policy response exists to future warming, there is no political entity with the power to force the entire world to enact such a policy. Somerville and science have absolutely nothing to say about this lack of power (or is he saying that science proves the USA needs to conquer the world?).

    When people demonstrate such incredibly poor judgment in one area, it raises serious questions about their competence in others.

  6. -5- Doug,

    You must be new here. Does the science dictate that there should be tax? Some other form of law? Regulation? I think you've wildly misunderstook Pielke Sr's point.

    Of course, ignoring the science is a time honored tradition (e.g., the EPA and DDT).

  7. It might be helpful to put Roger’s selected quote from Somerville in context. Just prior to the passage Roger selected, Somerville’s testimony says:

    “Yet many countries have already agreed on the firm aspirational goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above nineteenth-century 'pre-industrial' temperatures, in order to have a reasonable chance for avoiding dangerous human-caused climate change.

    Setting such a goal is a political decision, as I stressed earlier. However, now that the goal is set, at least by several countries, science can say with confidence that meeting the goal requires that global greenhouse gas emissions must peak within the next decade and then decline rapidly.”

    Perhaps the differences in perspective aren't all that great.

    Rick Brown

  8. Doug,

    One can completely accept all of the science of CO2 and still reject mitigation as a policy option because significant reductions in CO2 emissions are a technical and economic impossibility at this time.

    The trouble with scientists like Somerville is they want the government to waste money on futile exercises in order to create the illusion that something is being done. They cannot seem to understand that reasonable people do not want government resources to be wasted no matter how urgent the problem may be.

  9. Richard Somerville is quoted as saying:

    Setting such a goal is a political decision, as I stressed earlier. However, now that the goal is set, at least by several countries, science can say with confidence that meeting the goal requires that global greenhouse gas emissions must peak within the next decade and then decline rapidly.”

    Is the science really good enough so that one can say that with confidence?

    I an see how one might say that politically as an expression of a dangerous uncertainty but in my limited understanding of it, climate sensitivity is not known with any certainty.

  10. RichardB,

    Even with the expanded contest, the statement from Somerville is meaningless. The reason for this is that climate science can not speak athoritatively to the following questions.

    1. Which policies out of a sizable pool of possible policies would be the most effective?
    2. Which of the efective policies will cost as much or more in terms of both direct and indirect costs than the original problem?
    3. Out of the pool of cost-effective policies, which are politically achievable?

  11. More context. In his testimony, Somerville also says:

    “This scientific conclusion illustrates a key point, which is that it will be governments that will decide, by actions or inactions, what level of climate change they regard as tolerable. This choice by governments may be affected by risk tolerance, priorities, economics, and other considerations, but in the end it is a choice that humanity as a whole, acting through national governments, will make. Science and scientists will not and should not make that choice. After governments have set a tolerable limit of climate change, however, climate science can then provide valuable information about what steps will be required to keep climate change within that limit.”

    Roger sees a “stark contrast” between Somerville’s perspective and that of Roger’s father. I believe that a full consideration of the evidence – Somerville’s testimony -- suggests otherwise. Perhaps Roger sees what he wants to see.

    I’m sorry to see that evidence matters no more to those commenting here than it did to most members of the subcommittee today. Have fun, y’all.

    Rick Brown

  12. What will be the cost and effectiveness of measures which will be available in 2020? Science cannot tell us. Science cannot tell us even as much as the scientists claim, yet what they claim is still such a tiny portion of the equation as to be pretty much meaningless.

  13. -11-RichardB

    Inkblot indeed, Somervlle contradicted himself several times on this point in the hearing itself. But I am pretty sure that when he writes "After governments have set a tolerable limit of climate change" he is advocating that they do exactly that. But who knows.

  14. Roger, given that in 1994 many nations, including the United States, signed the UNFCCC, which states that:

    “The ultimate objective of this Convention and any related legal instruments that the Conference of the Parties may adopt is to achieve, in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Convention, stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

    I don’t see Somerville’s comment that you quote as necessarily “advocating,” for anything. A simpler, more neutral interpretation is that it’s a statement that he expects governments to do what they’ve said they’re going to do. While that may be hopelessly naïve, it doesn’t appear to make him an out-of-line advocate.

  15. -14-RichardB

    I know Richard and that he means well. But he says vastly different and contradictory things about science in politics. Some of these things are naive, some perhaps out-of-line and some quite reasonable. As I said on the AAAS liveblog this AM, these guys need better tutors at the science-policy interface, because they are not doing so well in the learning-by-doing department.

  16. To the best of my recollection, I had not heard of Somerville before today. I have seen nothing in his testimony to support your contention that his views of science and policy stand in stark contrast to those of your father. That you now resort to other, unshared experience to support your claim brings me back to your “but who knows.” That scientists, including all of those testifying today, could do better at understanding the science-policy interface seems indisputable to me. Perhaps we can leave it at that.

  17. RichardB,
    That is the null hypothesis you have hit on:
    That human impact on the cliamte is causing dangerous change.
    Please show us the evidence to support that.
    From reading our host's book, reading history, and observing how climate scientists behave, the hypothesis is falsified.

  18. RichardB @16. Just a quick scan suggests to me that both the tone and content of the 2 papers are quite different.

    First let's take a look at the "urgent/urgency" count:

    Somerville 8 Pielke 0

    Now let's take a look at appeal to the authority of "peer-reviewed" count:

    Somerville 11 Pielke 0

    And just for good measure, let's examine the "danger/dangerous" count:

    Somerville 6 Pielke 0

    There are some climate scientists who can make a reasoned argument. Others count on cant and mantras. Pielke is clearly among the former, while Somerville is the latter. So it was no surprise whatsoever to find that Somerville's text includes yet another recycling of the all too familiar (p. 36):

    "Our climate predictions are coming true. Many observed climate changes, like rising sea level, are occurring at the high end of the predicted changes. Some changes, like melting sea ice, are happening faster than the anticipated worst case. Unless mankind takes strong steps to halt and reverse the rapid global increase of fossil fuel use and the other activities that cause climate change, and does so in a very few years, severe climate change is inevitable. Urgent action is needed if global warming is to be limited to moderate levels."

    Not to mention Somerville's 14 instances of "sea level rise" [or variants thereof] - as opposed to Pielke's 0 instances of same.

    And I won't even mention Somerville's ludicrous quotation of the IPCC's continued defense of the indefensible hockey-stick. (p. 30) No doubt he is unaware of the ignoble history of that particularly egregious set of paragraphs [for details see: http://hro001.wordpress.com/2010/01/18/the-climate-change-game-monopoly-the-ipcc-version/]

  19. Y'all talk as if we have already achieved the ability to control climate AND CO2 levels. When exactly did we acquire this fantastic ability.

    People speak of raising this and lowering that. Can someone provide examples of successful climate control or at least some sort of weather control?

    If not, why is everyone so certain, it is possible?? GK

  20. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the bottom line is that Somerville misled, and Dr. Pielke, Sr. sought to deliver useful insights.
    As hr0001 points out, Somerville depends on inflammatory hype and what a reasonable person would consider sales closing techniques.

  21. While agreeing with Dr. Pielke Sr. that policy should be guided by science I would like to add some less polite guidance. Policy makers should be wary of anyone who reduces the entire field of science to the singular and narrow understanding of “The Science”.