by Judith Curry
I’m at Purdue University, preparing for a panel discussion with Andy Revkin and Roger Pielke Jr. on “Beyond Climategate.” The following three questions have been posed:
- Have scientists become ‘too political’ in their advocacy of particular climate change mitigation and adaptation policies? Do the benefits of engaging in political advocacy outweigh the risks of losing their credibility as scientists?
- What role has the media, including the blogosphere and the Internet, played in this growing contradiction? How has the media shaped the way that climate science is debated, disputed, and created? Is there a ‘better’ way for climate scientists to work with the media?
- Moving forward, is there a better role for climate scientists in political and policy debates, and if so, what would it look like?
Well, in the wake of Climategate, I have been trying to understand the crazy dynamics of climate science and policy and politics, and how things went so terribly wrong. I don’t think this is easily explained by any of the following explanations that are commonly put forth:
- either too little or too much PR and activism/advocacy by climate scientists
- the merchants of doubt and deniers won because of better PR and activism
- the scientists are corrupt and politically (or financially) motivated
The positive feedback loop
I think the dynamics are much more complicated, and can only be understood by considering the ever vexatious feedback loop. There has been a particularly toxic positive feedback loop between climate science and policy and politics, whose direction has arguably been reversed as result of Climategate.
The scientists provided the initial impulse for this feedback loop back in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The enviro advocacy groups quickly saw the possibilities and ran with it, with the scientists’ blessing. The enviro advocacy groups saw the climate change issue as an opportunity to enlist scientific support for their preferred energy policy solution. Libertarian think tanks, the traditional foes of the enviro advocacy groups, began countering with doubts about the science. International efforts to deal with the climate change problem were launched in 1992 with the UNFCCC treaty.
Wait a minute, what climate change problem? In 1992, we had just completed the first IPCC assessment report, here was their conclusion: “The size of this warming is broadly consistent with predictions of climate models, but it is also of the same magnitude as natural climate variability. . . The unequivocal detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect from observations is not likely for a decade or more.”
Nevertheless, the policy cart was put before the scientific horse, justified by the precautionary principle. Once the UNFCCC treaty was a done deal, the IPCC and its scientific conclusions were set on a track to become a self fulfilling prophecy. The entire framing of the IPCC was designed around identifying sufficient evidence so that the human-induced greenhouse warming could be declared unequivocal, and so providing the rationale for developing the political will to implement and enforce carbon stabilization targets. National and international science programs were funded to support the IPCC objectives. What should have been a political debate about energy policy, environmental quality, and reducing vulnerability to weather and climate disasters, became a debate about the nuances of climate science, with climate scientists as the pawns and whipping boys.
So were the scientists innocent victims and pawns in all this? Were they just hardworking scientists doing their best to address the impossible expectations of the policy makers? Well, many of them were. However, at the heart of the IPCC is a cadre of scientists whose careers have been made by the IPCC. These scientists have used the IPCC to jump the normal meritocracy process by which scientists achieve influence over the politics of science and policy. Not only has this brought some relatively unknown, inexperienced and possibly dubious people into positions of influence, but these people become vested in protecting the IPCC, which has become central to their own career and legitimizes playing power politics with their expertise.
The advantages of dogma
When I refer to the IPCC dogma, it is the religious importance that the IPCC holds for this cadre of scientists; they will tolerate no dissent, and seek to trample and discredit anyone who challenges the IPCC. Who are these priests of the IPCC? Some are mid to late career middle ranking scientists who have done ok in terms of the academic meritocracy. Others were still graduate students when they were appointed as lead authors for the IPCC. These scientists have used to IPCC to gain a seat at the “big tables” where they can play power politics with the collective expertise of the IPCC, to obtain personal publicity, and to advance their careers. This advancement of their careers is done with the complicity of the professional societies and the institutions that fund science. Eager for the publicity, high impact journals such as Nature, Science, and PNAS frequently publish sensational but dubious papers that support the climate alarm narrative.
Especially in the renascent subfields such as ecology and public health, these publications and the media attention help steer money in the direction of these scientists, which buys them loyalty from their institutions, who appreciate the publicity and the dollars.
Further, the institutions that support science use the publicity to argue for more funding to support climate research and its impacts. And the broader scientific community inadvertently becomes complicit in all this. While the IPCC priests loudly cry out against the heretical skeptical scientists and the dark influences of big oil and right wing ideology that are anti-science, we all join in bemoaning these dark forces that are fighting a war against science, and support the IPCC against its critics. The media also bought into this, by eliminating balance in favor of the IPCC dogma.
So do I think these priests of the IPCC are policy advocates? They are mainly concerned with preserving the importance of the IPCC, which has become central to their professional success, funding, and influence. Supporting the emissions and stabilization policies that they think logically follows from the science is part and parcel of this. Most don’t understand the policy process or the policy specifics; they view the policy as part an parcel of the IPCC dogma that must be protected and preserved at all cost, else their success, funding and influence will be in jeopardy.
Reversing the direction of the feedback
So this positive feedback continued to reinforce itself, entraining more and more of the broader scientific community who deplored the political war on science. Now the interesting thing about a positive feedback is that this doesn’t say anything about the trajectory of the actual chain of events. A year ago, on November 19, this seemingly unstoppable juggernaut received a major impulse in the opposite direction with the unauthorized release of the emails from the University of East Anglia. A year later, there has been some rather spectacular unraveling of the climate change juggernaut, although the high priests of the IPCC don’t quite realize it yet: the positive feedback at work, but in the opposite direction.
I along with much of the rest of the world viewed the IPCC as a group of highly meritorious scientists, working hard and digging deep to assess the science, all the while fighting against the dark forces of politics and big oil. The biggest shock from reading the emails was that the IPCC assessment process had a substantial element of schoolyard bullies, trying to insulate their shoddy science from outside scrutiny and attacks by skeptics, over concern with their press and media attention, discrediting skeptics, etc. Now the argument is rightly made that behavior of scientists is not relevant to the truth of science. However, when the assessment of the science rests largely on expert judgment, the behavior and credibility of the experts becomes a very important issue.
At this point, the whole thing would have been salvageable if scientists and the institutions that support science would have spoken up for the integrity of climate science, demanding greater transparency, etc. Instead, silence. A few statements were made by individuals and professional societies saying that the science remained sound, the emails don’t change the science.
I started speaking up about integrity and transparency, and I was told that this wasn’t helping, and was advised to stay off the blogs. And why was this? Central to protecting the IPCC dogma is the UNFCCC process, and we mustn’t allow this illegal hack to derail the policy activity in Copenhagen. Well, its hard to tell to what extent Climategate contributed to the failure of Copenhagen; it seems that raw politics was much more in play than the politics of science.
Then we saw errors in the IPCC reports, with the nature of the response by the IPCC further damaging their credibility. Investigations of scientists at East Anglia and Penn State were widely regarded to be whitewashes; in the U.K. the investigations themselves are now being investigated. Then we saw the collapse of 7 years of work in the U.S. senate for a carbon cap and trade bill. And allegations of conflicts of interest for the IPCC’s leader, Rachendra Pachauri.
The structure that has provide the basis for the IPCC priesthood to play power politics with their expertise in the arena of energy policy has all but collapsed. If this was just about science, this shouldn’t matter to the scientists. That the power is now in the hands of economists was bemoaned by Kevin Trenberth last week.
The other hit to IPCC’s influence in power politics has come from the “radical implications of the blogosphere” in changing the dynamics of expertise. The blogosphere has provided a technological base for people such as Steve McIntyre, who is either the villain or hero of Climategate, depending on your perspective.
I’ve had my pulse on the blogosphere since 2005, and have experimented with it as a way of communicating climate science and engaging with skeptics. When I first saw the emails on the internet, I knew immediately that this was going to go viral at least in the blogosphere, and I saw the IPCC as being in major jeopardy because of this. To try to calm things down, I posted two essays in the blogosphere on issues related to the integrity of climate science. I was hoping to keep a dialogue open with the skeptics so this whole thing didn’t explode.
Well, I was pretty much the only voice out there amongst the scientists that were supporters of the IPCC. I became deafened by the silence of my colleagues, and more important from the institutions that support science. Pachauri’s defense of the IPCC, and his apparent conflicts of interest, added fuel to the fire. I began asking whether the IPCC could survive this, and even whether it should survive this. I began trying to provide some constructive suggestions for the community to rebuild trust through greater transparency and greater attention to uncertainties. Not only did I receive virtually no support from my colleagues, but they started to view me as part of the problem.
At some point, I decided that I could no longer in good faith support the IPCC and its assessments. At the moment, it seems that many regard me as the main problem. Many of my colleagues wonder why I am being so “mavericky.” Here are some of the explanations that have been put forward over the last two weeks to explain my apparently inexplicable behavior:
- I been duped by big oil and/or right wing think tanks
- I have opened my mind so wide to skeptics that my brains have fallen out
- I’m in the pay of big oil or right wing think tanks
- I’m being blackmailed
- I have become either physically or mentally disabled
So what am I doing and why?I’m trying to get the public perception of climate science back on track so that our field can regain some respect. That respect will not be regained by better PR; rather it is essential to increase transparency, engage with skeptics, and pay more attention to uncertainty. I’m trying to put the blogosphere to work to reduce the polarization on this topic. My new blog is Climate Etc. at judithcurry.com.
On the role of scientists in public debates
So in closing, I would like to address the last question, regarding the role of scientists in public and policy debates. Well, first we have to remind ourselves that we are scientists, and that integrity is of particular importance in public and policy debates. Feynman describes scientific integrity in his Cargo Cult Science talk:
“[A]lthough you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven’t tried to be very careful in this kind of work. . . The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that. I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you are maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.”
Much of what I have been saying over the past year is about uncertainty, and what I view is an inadequate job of characterizing uncertainty by the IPCC. When I start using the words uncertainty and doubt, people immediately assume that I am a merchant of doubt in the pay of big oil, since doubt is used to diminish the political will to act. Well, get over it, “everything is uncertain except death and taxes,” as the saying goes.
Robust decision making incorporates information about uncertainty into the decision making process. And characterizing uncertainty for policy makers is what we should be doing as scientists. Exploring the uncertainty, help understand the risks, and help assess the impacts and efficacy of various policy options. The role of scientists should not be to develop political will to act by hiding or simplifying the uncertainties.