RESPONSE TO THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT OF THE UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
Pursuant to Judith Curry’s Testimony for the
Hearing on “Rational Discussion of Climate Change: the Science, the Evidence, the Response”
I would like to thank the Committee for this opportunity to expand upon my testimony. I found the questions to be particularly insightful and profound. The answers to these questions about a very complex situation are not simple or straightforward. In preparing my answers to these questions, I sought input from participants in my blog Climate Etc. (at http://judithcurry.com/2010/12/03/testimony-follow-up/), which received 265 comments from a diverse group of scientists, other professionals and anonymous citizens, from the U.S. as well as internationally. The diversity of opinions and ideas regarding these questions is evidenced by the broad range of thoughtful and insightful viewpoints expressed on the blog, and I acknowledge the contributions expressed on my blog in preparing this statement.
1. It is clear from your public statements that you generally agree with the mainstream view of global warming and cannot easily be characterized as a climate change “denier” or “skeptic.” Nonetheless, you have been quite critical of the process under which climate science is conducted, saying that “it is difficult to understand the continued circling of the wagons by some climate researchers with guns pointed at skeptical researchers by apparently trying to withhold data and other information of relevance to published research, thwart the peer review process, and keep papers out of assessment reports.”
a. Why are so many scientists “pointing their guns” at skeptics when sharing data and embracing debate seems to be an obvious way for scientists to increase the credibility of their arguments and influence public debate?
While the majority of climate scientists are not engaged in these adversarial tactics, the CRU emails revealed a siege mentality adopted by a group of influential and highly visible climate researchers. Understanding how and why this situation evolved in the way it did is a topic that should be investigated by historians and sociologists of science.
My own understanding of this situation is described in the context of the IPCC/UNFCCC ideology. What I’m referring to as the IPCC/UNFCCC ideology is described in my blog post at http://judithcurry.com/2010/11/07/no-ideologues-part-iii/ and is apparent in this interview with Michael Mann http://bos.sagepub.com/content/66/6/1.full. The basic elements of this ideology are outlined as:
1. Anthropogenic climate change is real.
2. Anthropogenic climate change is dangerous and we need to something about it.
3. The fossil fuel industry is trying to convince people that climate change is a hoax.
4. Deniers are attacking climate science and scientists, and their disinformation is misleading the public.
5. Deniers and the fossil fuel industry are delaying UNFCCC mitigation policies, providing a political motivation to counter the disinformation from the deniers.
The book “Merchants of Doubt” by Oreskes and Conway describes “how a loose–knit group of high-level scientists, with extensive political connections, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades. . . showing how the ideology of free market fundamentalism, aided by a too-compliant media, has skewed public understanding of some of the most pressing issues of our era.” The “circling the wagons” strategy revealed in the CRU emails was designed to counter the tactics of the merchants of doubt and other deniers in delaying the UNFCCC mitigation policies. This strategy was apparently designed under the tutelage of advocacy groups, learning lessons from the wars with big tobacco, etc.
While free market fundamentalism and “big oil” may have been a major source of skepticism in the past, the current dominant group of skeptics, enabled by the blogosphere, seeks accountability. Many of these skeptics have professional backgrounds and extensive experience with the practical application of science and regulation, without any particular political motivations and certainly without funding from “big oil.” Failing to recognize this new breed of climate skeptics, and dismissing them as politically motivated deniers or merchants of doubt, led to the events that were revealed by the CRU emails.
An additional motivation for circling the wagons seems to be insecurity and fear that uncertain or flawed analyses will damage professional reputations, as a result of this extraordinary scrutiny of their research. This motivation is revealed by Phil Jones’ email to Warwick Hughes saying: “Why should I give you my data when you only want to find fault in it?” Scientists who have invested considerable work and their professional reputations in developing a certain line of research want to be “right”, and defend their research against challenges from skeptical researchers. The normal process of scientific debate eventually sorts things out. However, when the battle lines were drawn between the “virtuous” scientists and the anti-science deniers, other scientists lined up in a “consensus” to fight against the forces of anti-science, without a careful examination of the scientific issue at hand. The end result is that genuine skeptical arguments were marginalized and ignored, which diminishes the credibility of science that is being defended.
Another issue is the evolving importance and changing dynamic of climate research. Two decades ago, climate science was conducted in a purely academic environment and there were no data quality requirements or regulatory requirements for models. As climate science has become increasingly policy relevant, demands on quality and traceability (particularly retrospective ones) could not be met. This produced defensiveness amongst the scientists, who did not want to provide any ammunition for the merchants of doubt; they sought refuge in the “consensus” and argued by appealing to their own authority.
In the midst of all this, scientific best practices became compromised.
b. Given the potentially enormous influence of climate science on economic and environmental policy – which ultimately boils down to jobs 00 — shouldn’t it be held to a higher standard in the public debate? For example, should Congress consider blocking funding for researchers that do not make their data and materials available for public scrutiny?
The key issue is openness and traceability. Scientists supported by government funding should ensure that their data and methods are made available to any researcher for purposes of replication. However, the practical aspects of wholesale enforcement of this are not straightforward. U.S. agencies that supervise and fund climate research (e.g. USGCRP, NSF, NOAA, NASA) already have substantial requirement in place for data archival and full and open access to data. Many journals also have requirements for archiving data and ensuring that the data and methods used are made available for purposes of replication. These requirements are not uniformly enforced. How to enforce these requirements in a cost effective way is an important topic to address.
Climate science used for public policy should be held to a higher standard, in a manner similar to medical/pharmaceutical research that is used in the health marketplace. There is normal academic peer reviewed medical research, but higher standards are required in the context of regulated science before a drug or procedure can be marketed. The analogy for climate science is normal academic peer reviewed science, versus an accountable assessment process for policy makers. As part of the assessment process, greater accountability is required, which might consist of fact checking, statisticians auditing the statistical methods, computer scientists auditing the algorithms, etc.
With regards to funding, as part of the proposal process, scientists should state how they will archive their data or otherwise make available data and other information to others attempting to reproduce their results. Scientists should be held accountable for actually having made their data available in consideration for future funding. I am aware of some funding programs and program managers that actually do this, but overall this does not seem to be enforced.
The principal climate data records should be maintained by government agencies, with full documentation, quality and version control, complete documentation, and support to respond to user queries. University research groups are ill equipped to handle this, and researchers generally find the painstaking work of quality control to be scientifically boring.
c. Should such research be excluded from use in policy debates and scientific assessments such as those by the National Academies or IPCC?
There is no prima facie reason to exclude any relevant information from policy and scientific debates. The “scientific juries” of the IPCC and National Academies will use their own standards to decide which scientific studies are suitable for inclusion in their assessment reports. However, there is a significant gap between a scientific assessment of research and accountable information for actual policy making and regulatory purposes. Accountability for issuing regulations under the EPA endangerment finding could demand that all relevant information be independently assessed for its accuracy and reliability to determine its usefulness. Information that has not been assessed or cannot be assessed owing to unavailability of data and other source materials would not be used in this context. Such a requirement would motivate the science community to ensure that its products are useful in the context of policy making and government regulations.
2. You state in your testimony that the conflict regarding the theory of anthropogenic climate change is over the level of our ignorance regarding what is unknown about natural climate variability. For a long time, the scientific community did not consider uncertainty a bad thing. In fact, the word “certainty” was something that was almost never used (you are not certain the sun will rise tomorrow morning, but you are reasonably sure that it is very likely to occur.)
a. At what point did uncertainty become a bad thing in the climate community?
Uncertainty became a bad thing in the climate science community with the creation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) Treaty in 1992. The UNFCCC states that future greenhouse gas emissions are uncertain, as are climate change damages. However, following the precautionary principle, “lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” While lack of full certainty does not preclude action, the level of certainty needs to reach some sort of threshold before action is triggered under the precautionary principle. While this threshold of certainty is vague, reducing the uncertainty makes action more likely.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s, climate research programs were aimed explicitly at the reduction of uncertainties in future climate projections. By the mid 1990’s, climate modelers were beginning to realize that the increasing complexity of climate models and the fundamentally chaotic nature of climate system precluded full predictability of the climate system. Nevertheless, the emphasis from policy makers and funding agencies was on the reduction of uncertainty. The U.S. Climate Change Science Program Science Plan (published in 2003) emphasized reducing uncertainty, using the phrase in many of its goals.
Classical decision making theory involves reducing uncertainties before acting. There has been a growing sense of the infeasibility of reducing uncertainties in global climate models owing to the continued emergence of unforeseen complexities and sources of uncertainties. While reducing the overall uncertainty isn’t viable, at the same time not acting could be associated with catastrophic impacts. Since a higher level of confidence would make decision makers more willing to act, political opponents to action sold doubt and the scientists countered by selling certainty and consensus. Scientific statements about uncertainty became viewed as political statements.
b. How did this shift within the scientific community occur? How does it shift back?
Climate science got caught up in a highly charged political debate: the consequences predicted by the models were dire, and many of the climate scientists were persuaded by the predictions of the models. Climate science is a relatively young field, and one that was ill prepared for participation in such a highly charged political debate. The traditions of science in disclosing all of the weaknesses of their work were at odds with this adversarial political process.
The actual shift within the community seems to have occurred in the context of the IPCC process. 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 in the context of the UNFCCC. National and international science programs were funded to support the IPCC objectives. Scientists involved in the IPCC advanced their careers, obtained personal publicity, and some gained a seat at the big policy tables. This career advancement of IPCC scientists was 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 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. When the IPCC consensus is attacked by deniers and the forces of “anti-science,” scientists all join in bemoaning these dark forces 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 consensus.
The bottom line is that scientists worked within the system to maximize their professional reputations, influence, and funding. Rather than blame the scientists for optimizing their rewards within the system, we need to take a careful look at the system, most particularly the climate science-policy interface and the federal funding of climate science.
How does it shift back? Change the system to improve the science-policy interface and change the funding priorities. A top priority for research funding should be exploring the significance and characteristics of uncertainty across the range of climate science, not only the climate models themselves, but also solar forcing, surface temperature datasets, natural internal modes of climate variability, etc. Change the decision making framework from the classical “reduce the uncertainty before acting” paradigm to a robust decision making framework that incorporates understanding of uncertainty as information in the contemplation and management of environmental risks.
Changing the funding priorities is key. We need to reduce reliance on building ever more complex climate models for being the primary source of reducing uncertainties regarding climate change. Climate researchers need to engage with a broader range of expertise in and build strong links to disciplines experienced in complex nonlinear modeling and statistical inference, among others. We need a much better understanding of natural climatic variability. More research is needed on understanding abrupt climate change and developing a more extensive archive of paleoclimate proxies. And finally, greater resources need to be provided to accelerating the establishment of definitive climate data records.
Openness and transparency enables critical examination by a broad range of scientists and citizens. Recognition of the extended peer review communities enabled by the blogosphere is essential, and frank discussions with skeptics are needed. We need to eliminate the elitism that argues that certain scientists are more “important” voices in the debate than others (by virtue of their academic recognitions, citations, etc), that scientists with expertise outside of the traditional climate disciplines can be ignored, and that the only valid contributions come in the form of peer reviewed journal publications. With regard to the latter point, well-documented analyses/audits of data sets occurring on technical blogs have provided significant contributions to understanding and improving data quality. This elitism is counter to the traditions of science, characterized by physicist Richard Feynman as “Science is the belief in the ignorance of the experts.” It is the merits of the scientific argument that count; not the qualifications of the person making the argument.
c. Are there any efforts within the scientific community to self-correct this paradigm shift? If there is not, what does this mean for the decision-makers needing objective and unbiased scientific information to inform their policies?
Science is subject to human fallibility, and such shifts have happened in the past. Science always manages to correct itself, but the process is not necessary quick or painless. Scientific professional societies and universities have a key role to play in setting the standards for scientific research and for establishing a useful interface between science and policy.
That said, the first reaction of the climate establishment to the release of the CRU emails and the errors identified in the IPCC reports has generally been one of defensiveness, and lacking introspection and discussion of correction. Some of the climate scientists at the center of “storm” seem to be battling a scientific version of post traumatic stress syndrome, overwhelming their ability to cope with the issues. Dealing with these issues requires active involvement by the broader climate research community and particularly by the institutions that include climate researchers but are not dominated by them, including the American Geophysical Union, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academies.
If the government wants objective and unbiased scientific information to inform their policies, then the guidelines and incentives need to be changed. Stop asking for scientists to reduce the uncertainties; rather, ask for our understanding of the range of risks that we might be facing from climate change (both natural and anthropogenic). Fund climate research that is much broader, not just studies designed to support the IPCC/UNFCCC. Support the development of improved connections with disciplines that conduct research into complex nonlinear systems, statistical inference, and decision making under uncertainty. Change the nature of the “carrot” and the scientific community will respond.
Finally, I have to state that my own efforts to stimulate such a correction have been highly controversial within the field of climate research, and relatively few climate researchers are speaking out publicly in support of what I am trying to do. I regard my own scientific reputation as secure, as well as my research funding, so I don’t feel that I am risking anything that I can’t afford to lose by speaking out. But other scientists feel much more vulnerable if they were to attempt to rock the boat in some way, and I have received many emails from scientists expressing this kind of concern. This culture that has developed in climate science that greatly concerns me, particularly in the context of university departments and government labs. Ten years ago, I used to think that university tenure was irrelevant in my field. Right now, the controversy surrounding climate science makes tenure seem essential. Scientific debate should be the spice of academic life; climate research lost this in the midst of the politicization of the subject.
3. Do you believe the current IPCC processes are working? If so, why? If not, what specific actions can be taken to repair them, and in the meantime, why should the product of a process that isn’t working be relied upon as the basis for policy actions that would impose enormous costs on the United States economy?
A number of people have put forth arguments that the IPCC is structurally unsound and fatally flawed, owing to its connection with the UNFCCC. Some people who have been supportive of the IPCC view its work as being finished. I view the major flaws of the IPCC to be:
- A focus on providing scientific information on anthropogenic climate change for use as justification of a Treaty, at the expense of a thorough assessment of natural climate variability, the limitations and uncertainties associated with climate model projections, etc.
- The requirement for broad based international participation in the IPCC assessment, resulting in a heavy emphasis on participation by scientists that are merely industrious rather than those that are exceptionally qualified, experienced and insightful. Compare the list of authors on the IPCC AR4 report with those involved in the 1979 Charney Report on Carbon Dioxide and Climate, which included the premier U.S. scientists of the time. The broad geographical and international distribution of authors, some with relatively meager qualifications and experience, seems motivated more by political reasons to gain support for the Treaty rather than by the needs of the scientific assessment itself.
- Working Groups II and III on impacts and mitigation have produced reports that are judged by many to be inaccurate and misleading. The emphasis of these reports seems to be to convince policy makers that anthropogenic climate change is dangerous and the problem of carbon mitigation can be addressed feasibly and without economic damage.
So in one sense, the IPCC process is “working” in terms of garnering support for the UNFCCC treaty. But as a scientific assessment of climate variability and change and the vulnerabilities to climate change, I would judge the IPCC process not to be working. I don’t think that the IPCC can be repaired without a major overhaul of its justification and organization. For an IPCC under the auspices of the UN, I would recommend that the WG I assessment be undertaken under the auspices of the WMO/WCRP (and not the UNEP and UNFCCC).
Many other initiatives with international implications are undertaken without the involvement of the UN. An approach whereby disparate organizations conduct assessments would be beneficial, producing new ideas and new directions and a more diverse scientific and policy debate. An alternative to the IPCC is to conduct assessments within individual nations or a group of nations who share a common interest. However, the recent U.S. assessment reports seem to mostly parrot the IPCC assessment, with many of the people participating in the U.S. assessments having also participated in the IPCC. A broader base of scientists should participate in the assessments, including those whose scientific reputations and funding aren’t tied to climate change. Skeptical perspectives should be sought and included.
Regarding use of the scientific assessments as a basis for policy actions, I argue that an intermediate step is required, analogous to that for regulated science such as pharmaceuticals, food safety, human genetic manipulation, etc. Independent assessment, auditing, due diligence, whatever you want to call it, can insure that quality standards are met and that the assessment addresses the wider interests of the public.
There are no simple answers to addressing the complex and wicked problem of climate change, but a rethinking of our broader strategies is needed.