“In other words, it’s a huge shit sandwich, and we’re all gonna have to take a bite.”–Lt. Lockhart, Full Metal Jacket
When I starting to write this the thought occurred to me, “do I really want to do this? This topic is a lightning rod and it’s sure to piss everyone off!” Of course, this is exactly the reason it needs to be discussed. Climate is an enormous scientific and societal problem that has become a horrific “shit sandwich” that we all get to share. It is starting to infect the entirety of the societal engagement with science in a profoundly negative way. A thoughtful and open discussion about the quality and reliability of the underlying science cannot be had. This serves two terrible purposes: it energizes the climate “deniers” who have defacto won the argument by making it completely toxic, and it savages the public image of science, damaging not just the perception of science, but its practice. We are facing the prospect that the only outcome for humanity is bad. So I’m going to grab the proverbial lightning rod with both hands.
Let’s get to one of the elephants in the room right away; the issue of deniers, skeptics and critics needs immediate attention. My contention is that these labels are important and the distinctions are important. First, the positive side of the coin, the critics are essential to progress and an honest dialog on the subject. The current circumstances are drowning out the ability to be critical of climate science. This is dangerous. The science is good, but not good enough; it is never good enough. Because criticism is so muted by the polarized political atmosphere-surrounding climate, the skeptics are rightly energized. Some degree of skepticism is warranted especially considering how the scientific community is characterized. The problem is that as one moves along the spectrum of skepticism, one approaches the third category, the denier. The denier cannot be defended, it is simply the outright denial of facts, of science, but we are creating a situation where the facts are muddied by both sides of the argument. A modern society should rightly, repudiate the deniers; instead cynical and greedy forces are empowering them. To the extent that the scientific community misbehaves, they also empower denial as reasonable.
Science is being horribly politicized these days. No subject is more so than climate science on the topic of climate change or the more pointed and accurate term, global warming. Scientists are not the core of the problem, but they do add to the toxic mix by responding to the environment in a manner that undermines the credibility of science. We are confronted with a situation where the scientific results threaten the ability of greedy people to make lots of money. The greedy people who stand to have their earning power diminished are fighting back. Some of their weapons are scientists who side with them for largely ideological reasons (or outright financial gain). There are always scientists who are willing to sow doubt as hired guns of the greedy, just as both sides of a court cases can get their own experts if the price is right. The truly damaging part of this dialog is the damage the credible scientific community is doing to itself in joining the battle.
Climate science is the archetype of this dynamic much like tobacco was a generation ago. The amazing thing is that some of the same hired guns that are attacking climate scientists today attacked the idea that tobacco was causing cancer then. The majority of these scientists have absolutely zero credibility. Or to put it another way, they have the same credibility I have as a climate expert. My views here are associated with how science is being conducted, and the atmosphere for improvement, or how criticism of the quality of the science can proceed without playing into the hands of the denial industry. As a scientist this is completely within the frame of valid expertise on my part.
I’m not engaging in any sort of false equivalence although one might see this as the conclusion of this piece. The difference in level of damage to science and society by the misbehavior on each side is vastly different. The side of denial has almost the complete absence of merit. Whatever merit it does have is associated with the critical side of skepticism, and nothing from the self-interested parties providing most of the resources for the “movement”. The sins of the climate science community are basically at the margins, but lead to a loss of effectiveness. First and foremost, the World needs to realize that an enormous problem exists, and needs to be addressed quickly and forthrightly. The problem is when the climate community starts to address the actions to be taken to deal with global warming. There are many potential ways of addressing the problem and all of them are expensive and controversial. Some of the ways that would be most effective do not suit the “green” agenda. The problem is that too many who are trying to sound the alarm are also pushing specific solutions, and in particular solutions from the left. This undermines the ability to convince the World that there is a problem that must be solved. Moreover it makes science itself look like a partisan activity with a given political point-of-view.
Before I go further, I will just state up front that my judgment, for what its worth, is that man is the prime element causing the observed global warming through our collective industrial and agricultural activities. The evidence of the warming is rock solid, and the hypothesis that this warming is dominantly anthropogenic is very likely true. This is still a hypothesis and most of my quibbling rests upon discomfort with the level of credibility of climate models. We must be careful with regard to the level of uncertainty of these models, which is likely to be larger than commonly characterized because of the methodology used. This care must include the proviso that the amount of warming could well be much larger than predicted, which would prove catastrophic for humanity.
I have to admit that this issue is personal at some level. My parents are deniers born and bred through watching the propaganda machine known as Fox News. This has led to them being exposed to above-mentioned hired guns as appropriate experts in climate science. I’ve read one of their books (by Fred Singer, which my dad had been reading), and found it to be complete crap, but well enough written to fool an educated person without an appropriate technical background. My advice was to pay attention to the author’s conflicts of interest and past associations. For example previous funding by the tobacco lobby should be a clear “red flag”. My key point is there are more scientifically credible skeptics who make valid critiques. Those critiques are more scientific and not meant to be digested like another source of propaganda. As such they are much more difficult to make serve the biased purposes of the denier’s funding sources.
The climate skeptics are primarily driven and funded by interests that have massive financial interests in continued (or accelerated) use of carbon-based fuel. Others have a conservative world-view associated with Manifest Density (or put more bluntly, God put the Earth here for man to rape to his heart’s content). Fortunately these attitudes are countered by evangelicals who believe in stewardship of the Earth is their divine responsibility. Here in the USA, the old school rape and pillage the Earth types still have the edge. These people aren’t skeptics they are simply greedy or delusional self-centered people who have absolutely no credible argument against the science. Their only goal is to seed doubt in the mind of the untrained masses that form the majority of our society.
This is not to say that every skeptic is simply the willing tool of greedy corporate interests, or ideological zealots devoted to clear cutting as a God-given right. It is a spectrum where one end has honest and meaningful critical assessments, and the other with near denial of all evidence contrary to their opinion. Climate science has a lot of problems today that need to be solved. The honest skeptic is an important voice of criticism that ultimately drives the science to be better. There are some skeptics who have reasonable scientific arguments, but the charlatans drown them out. Moreover too many of the skeptics fail to call out the charlatans for what they are. Others are worse and figuratively get in bed with them. Unfortunately, the climate community isn’t behaving themselves either and has succeeded in helping to produce an appallingly poisonous environment for improving the science. Worse yet, the climate community’s defense of their conclusions is assisting the poisoning the entire societal dialog on science and its proper role.
Let me be clear, the vast majority of the blame for the current state of affairs lies with greedy corporate interests that want to preserve the status quo that enriches them, the future of humanity be damned. They fund scientific skeptics to undermine science and ally themselves with conservative ideological interests who agree with the outcome they want. Their goals are fundamentally unethical and immoral. They are the worst kind of societal scum. If science doesn’t help line their pockets, they will oppose it. In opposing these forces, the scientific community has lowered their standards by embracing concepts that are unscientific. Key among these is the concept of consensus as defacto proof.
Consensus is not proof, but it plays a thorny role in the scientific process (i.e., peer review). Sometimes the consensus view is not correct. Most of time it is correct, but on occasion it is wrong. Consensus is a reflection of agreement within the community and a statement about what the best technical judgment is (at the moment), but not proof. The problem is that the public is being sold on the idea that consensus is proof, or at least when it comes off that way, no one corrects them (aside from the skeptics). The awful thing about this is that the scientific community is then handing the moral high ground over to the skeptics, even the scummy hired guns. Consensus is simply the critical judgment of the community that a given line of reasoning is favored given all of the evidence. All in all I would add my name to that consensus while remaining critical of the science. It really doesn’t matter that the consensus is 97% or if it were 92% or 99%. These numbers are meaningless insofar as proof is concerned. It is agreement, and nothing more.
Let’s talk about the scientific method and where the climate science sits with respect to it. Proof comes through agreement with observation or experiment. This is the rub. Anthropogenic (man-made) climate change (global warming) is a hypothesis. Observations seem to be unambiguous regarding warming, it is occurring and its magnitude and rate of increase are unprecedented. Arguments about the recent pause in warming are largely irrelevant to this aspect of the discussion. The observation is also highly correlated with man’s industrial activity primarily seen through increased CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. It is worth noting that correlation does not imply causation; however, we do know unequivocally that CO2 does cause warming via the greenhouse effect. Thus the warming is correlated with a known causal effect.
Nonetheless, the hypothesis testing for the man-made basis for warming comes via modeling the climate on supercomputer. These models consistently show that warming is anthropogenic, but the proof via modeling is far from definitive despite being rather convincing. The relatively larger amount of warming in the Polar Regions is important because the models predict this. The loss of polar ice and melting of permafrost is another important observation that backs up the credibility of the models. It is the texture of this discussion that we are missing. The modeling needs to be better especially with regard to studying the sensitivity and uncertainty of the models. To put it bluntly, this work is not up to scratch, and the effort, dialog and discussion of these matters is not presently productive. Part of the problem is a general unwilliness to admit the flaws in the work publically because of how it would empower skeptics. The scumbag side of the skeptics has no interest in improving the science, and would use this honesty against climate science. This is the start of the toxic spiral because an important aspect of science has been short-circuited by the nature of the dialog. Self-criticism in the climate community is not as sharp, nor as open as it needs to be. The quality of the science will suffer, or has already suffered as a direct consequence.
The modeling community needs to be acutely focused on doing better. It is true that there is vigorous debate inside the climate science community on many aspects of the modeling, but some topics are less open. The big issue is the nature of the projections into the future, are they predictive? And if so, how predictive? How does on grapple with the question? Key to answering these big questions how does calibration enter into the models? What is this calibration doing from a modeling point-of-view? Generally, the modeling does not produce a useful result without the gross calibration, but at what cost?
Again, we get to the heart of the problem. Critics and skeptics are essential to progress, and the climate community seems to be interested in silencing skeptics, at least publically. They are systematically over emphasizing the surety of their work. They are not willing to admit the imperfections in their work openly. For example, the uncertainty in the projections in the global climate is derived by the trajectories of a host of climate models. This is not uncertainty; it is simply a model-based voting scheme, none of which has any assurance of correctness. Each of these models has an innate uncertainty associated with the model, its numerical solution, and other modeling imperfections. The issue not explored is the nature of these models’ intrinsic bias, and their impact on the projections. This entire topic needs a substantially better scientific treatment. This is an old-fashioned way of exploring the issue rather than a reflection of modern computational science. By not providing a path to better methods we are not doing our best. This is basically ceding the debate to the deniers, and empowering the status quo for decades.
Let’s get to the heart of where climate scientists really start to potentially damage their work’s significance. Whenever climate science aligns itself with the left wing of the environmental movement, the general public acceptance of the issue is harmed. Given the science it is reasonable to suggest that carbon neutral policy be pursued; however when nuclear power is rejected the community goes too far. The scientific evidence would clearly point towards reducing the production of energy via carbon-based sources as greatly as possible. Nuclear power is probably the single greatest hope to reduce carbon emissions greatly without wrecking the economy. Solar, wind and other energy sources have their place, but they cannot replace base capacity (today). Nuclear power can do this right now. Solving the energy production issue without carbon is an immense political and technical problem, but it is out of scope for the climate community. Advocating an energy path directly hurts their ability to provide the impact their science needs.
When the advocacy begins to tread into the area of economics and equality (inequality) it has definitively cross over into the political realm. People who use global warming to push these issues are a direct threat to the legitimacy of the whole field. This isn’t to say that inequality isn’t a legitimate issue; it just isn’t at the core of climate change. By coupling the two issues so closely, they simply equate themselves with the skeptics who ally themselves with carbon-spewing oligarchs. Neither extreme has a place in the debate over whether global warming is occurring, occurring due to man-made effects or whether it is a threat. The issues are important, but decoupled. Coupling them creates the toxic blend we have today.
The consensus issue is a problem for science in general. Science is about truth and we don’t vote for what is right. If 97 percent of scientists believe something it doesn’t mean a damn thing. They could be completely wrong, science does not work through consensus, and it works through evidence.
Let’s talk about what the evidence says. The Earth is warming, and warming at a rate that is unprecedented in the natural climate record. Something very dangerous to every inhabitant of the planet is happening. Why it is happening is the issue. The working hypothesis is greenhouse gases, and that is where modeling comes in. Just because all the models seem to agree with they hypothesis does not make it the truth. This focus on consensus as proof is hurting the scientific community in every field because it poisons the public perception of science.
To be clear I’m not saying that I don’t believe in anthropogenic global warming, I do. I believe that the combined effect of man’s activity in burning carbon-based fuel, agriculture and deforestation is driving climate change. This is a hypothesis. It is a compelling scientific argument that makes logical sense and fits the observations. I just cannot prove it. I don’t think climate science has proven it either. The greenhouse effect along with other human activity is the leading contender for the observed warming. While not proven, the evidence is large enough that National and International policy should be reflected in mitigating the activities that are most likely causing it.
What is proven is that the Earth is warming up a lot, and it is almost certainty a very bad thing. By very bad I mean that millions if not billions of people will lose their lives as a result. This ought to spur action. The people paying the majority of the skeptics don’t care; there is too much money to be made.
Something I am an expert on is modeling. I’m also an expert in modeling credibility. The approach that the climate community (IPCC) has taken to demonstrating credibility is very problematic. Basically the models are voting for outcomes, and in this perverse way it shadows the consensus argument in a perverse way. They are not actually providing any credible view of their uncertainty or accuracy. In the end this fails to provide the sort of clear guidance needed to improve the modeling. The whole of their approach does not reflect the best in computational science. Despite this criticism, I’d take their models as being a reasonable reflection to the Earth’s response. I’m questioning the overall quality of their approach and evidence.
The end result is a climate science community that has played to the lowest denominator. We need great science to study this issue. Instead we have devolved into a mindless shouting match that basically hands victory to those who would have us do nothing. This is a tragedy because climate change is an existential threat to our species.
Ultimately science and technology must be healthy if we can hope to deal with the consequences of global warming. Transportation will need dramatic overhaul. We need to produce new options for producing energy in an economically viable manner. Geoengineering may be needed to mitigate the dumping of carbon into the atmosphere. Biological and agricultural sciences are needed to provide relief from the impacts of science. If the ability to progress via science is damaged by our collective dysfunction, the ability to respond in a healthy way to the warming will be harmed.
What would make the whole situation better? If you believe global warming is happening because of the evidence, and that the hypothesis of human causation is the best explanation then work to make the science going into these better by being critical of every weakness. If someone supports this belief because of their worldview and not the science treat them with suspicion. There are supporters of climate change as an issue because it empowers their political goals (like radical environmentalism, Marxism, etc..), not because the science says it is a problem. People with this view hurt the ability of society to deal forthrightly with the issue. If on the other hand, you don’t believe global warming is happening and/or humans are causing it then work to make the science better by being purposefully critical of what undermines your belief. As a skeptic also be critical of people who don’t believe these things because of their worldview. If you don’t then you’ll be put into the same camp as religious zealots and greedy oligarchs. These people work to undermine the legitimacy of any skepticism of the science. In the end the people who choose their answer to global warming based on worldview aren’t interested in the truth, they are interested in winning, everyone else be damned.
The quote from “Full Metal Jacket” applies to both the issue of climate change, and the harm done through the nature of the public dialog. Science is being damaged deeply by the dialog. Those trying to undermine any response to climate change aren’t simply the only ones doing this damage; those who rightly call themselves scientists are causing harm. As a direct result no one on either side is going to win, we are all going to lose.