Foreign Policy Blogs

The Brouhaha Over the Science

I’ve been trying to stay out of the thick of the vastly media-inflated controversy over the science.  There are folks, in any event, who are much better grounded in the complexities of the arguments than I am.  These include the very good minds at RealClimate, Skeptical Science, Stoat and Climate Feedback, among others.  I have been, nevertheless, confronting the Denialists occasionally here in posts like Temperature 101 and Denial World.

Here’s an example of what I would characterize as media inflation.  The “NY Times” had a front-page article last week, Climate-Change Debate Is Heating Up in Deep Freeze.  The premise that there are “two sides in the climate-change debate” is way off the mark.  There is deep, broad and unequivocal science that has long since ended any reasoned contention that climate change is not a stark reality.  Naomi Oreskes, a social scientist, looked at 928 – 10% – of all the papers published on climate change in peer-reviewed science journals over a ten-year period. She chose the 928 papers at random. Not one disputed the view that manmade GHGs were causing a catastrophic environmental crisis.

Opposing this view are ideologues and paid henchmen of special interests.  Unfortunately, the Denialists have been dignified by calling them Skeptics.  Are we to believe that the Denialists, both in government and in the scientific community, have equal sway with those who recognize the dangers of warming and are moving on a number of fronts to deal with it?

Try some analogies.  Is there a “debate” on the fact of the Holocaust?  Should we grant that those who contend Barack Obama wasn’t born in the US have as valid an argument as those who do?  Should we give as much credence to the Flat Earth folks as we do to those who see the earth for what it is?  (I lauded Gordon Brown at this post the other day for calling out the “anti-science, flat-earth climate sceptics.”)

The Academies of Science of 13 leading nations have called on world leaders to act “to limit the threat of climate change.”  Over 190 nations are signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  Major industrial companies and financial institutions from around the world have been calling on world leaders and policy makers to address the climate crisis head on, as have religious leaders from the Pope to the Dalai Lama.  There is no debate.  There is only the difficult task of finding solutions while warding off the prevarications of those who would block meaningful progress.

The estimable Olive Heffernan, editor of “Nature Reports Climate Change” and the excellent Climate Feedback blog, has this exclusive interview with Phil Jones, the embattled – but defiant – head of the UK’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU), one of the world’s three key centers for the compilation of climate data.  Jones “…is eager to set the record straight on the science.”  And he does.

Another of the scientists at the heart of the controversy over data and emails from the CRU, Michael Mann, has been cleared by his university of the charges of falsifying data, concealing information and misusing confidential information.  The “LA Times” further reports here that a fourth allegation, that he “seriously deviated from accepted practices within the academic community,” is under further investigation, and that Mann welcomes it, as he says, “Even though no evidence to substantiate the fourth allegation was found…”

Not incidentally, the CRU emails in question were hacked and the investigation into this – and other – illegal incursions into key climate science databases and email files continues.  The good folks at “IT-Networks” have a story on Hacking into the mind of the CRU climate change hacker.  (HT to my brothers and sisters at DeSmogBlog for flagging this story.)

Meanwhile, another prominent climate scientist, IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri has been under the gun.  What set off this particular tempest in a teapot was a mistake in one paragraph of their 938-page assessment of “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability,” itself just one major component of four in the Fourth Assessment Report.  The IPCC sums up it nicely here.  Again, though, there are many threads to this and I would refer you to the sources I mentioned in the first paragraph above if you want a full explanation of who’s who and what’s what.

Improving quality control is, of course, nevertheless always a good idea.  “Scientific American” has this thoughtful look at the IPCC controversy, its way of doing business and some suggestions for how to improve the process.  The Fifth Assessment Report is due to be rolled out from September 2013 through September 2014.  The IPCC is no doubt taking careful note of the many constructive (and some of the perhaps-not-so-constructive) critiques that have been forthcoming.

What we will certainly see, as well, in the AR5, is a deepening of the evidence on the challenges we face.  Indeed a major scientific congress in Copenhagen a year ago promulgated considerable science to the effect that the IPCC’s AR4 had understated the problems.  “Recent observations show that greenhouse gas emissions and many aspects of the climate are changing near the upper boundary of the IPCC range of projections. Many key climate indicators are already moving beyond the patterns of natural variability within which contemporary society and economy have developed and thrived. These indicators include global mean surface temperature, sea-level rise, global ocean temperature, Arctic sea ice extent, ocean acidification, and extreme climatic events. With unabated emissions, many trends in climate will likely accelerate, leading to an increasing risk of abrupt or irreversible climatic shifts.”



Bill Hewitt

Bill Hewitt has been an environmental activist and professional for nearly 25 years. He was deeply involved in the battle to curtail acid rain, and was also a Sierra Club leader in New York City. He spent 11 years in public affairs for the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation, and worked on environmental issues for two NYC mayoral campaigns and a presidential campaign. He is a writer and editor and is the principal of Hewitt Communications. He has an M.S. in international affairs, has taught political science at Pace University, and has graduate and continuing education classes on climate change, sustainability, and energy and the environment at The Center for Global Affairs at NYU. His book, "A Newer World - Politics, Money, Technology, and What’s Really Being Done to Solve the Climate Crisis," will be out from the University Press of New England in December.

Areas of Focus:
the policy, politics, science and economics of environmental protection, sustainability, energy and climate change