First Science Journal Breaks Green Tabu

  • Date: 23/10/10

Scientific American Asks: Why Can’t We Have A Civil Conversation About Climate?

In trying to understand the Judith Curry phenomenon, it is tempting to default to one of two comfortable and familiar story lines.

For most of her career, Curry, who heads the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has been known for her work on hurricanes, Arctic ice dynamics and other climate-related topics. But over the past year or so she has become better known for something that annoys, even infuriates, many of her scientific colleagues. Curry has been engaging actively with the climate change skeptic community, largely by participating on outsider blogs such as Climate Audit, the Air Vent and the Black­board. Along the way, she has come to question how climatologists react to those who question the science, no matter how well established it is. Although many of the skeptics recycle critiques that have long since been disproved, others, she believes, bring up valid points—and by lumping the good with the bad, climate researchers not only miss out on a chance to improve their science, they come across to the public as haughty. “Yes, there’s a lot of crankology out there,” Curry says. “But not all of it is. If only 1 percent of it or 10 percent of what the skeptics say is right, that is time well spent because we have just been too encumbered by groupthink.”

She reserves her harshest criticism for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). For most climate scientists the major reports issued by the United Nations–sponsored body every five years or so constitute the consensus on climate science. Few scientists would claim the IPCC is perfect, but Curry thinks it needs thoroughgoing reform. She accuses it of “corruption.” “I’m not going to just spout off and endorse the IPCC,” she says, “because I think I don’t have confidence in the process.”

Whispered discreetly at conferences or in meeting rooms, these claims might be accepted as part of the frequently contentious process of a still evolving area of science. Stated publicly on some of the same Web sites that broke the so-called Climategate e-mails last fall, they are considered by many to be a betrayal, earning Curry epithets from her colleagues ranging from “naive” to “bizarre” to “nasty” to worse.

All of which sets up the two competing story lines, which are, on the surface at least, equally plausible. The first paints Curry as a peacemaker—someone who might be able to restore some civility to the debate and edge the public toward meaningful action. By frankly acknowledging mistakes and encouraging her colleagues to treat skeptics with respect, she hopes to bring about a meeting of the minds.

The alternative version paints her as a dupe—someone whose well-meaning efforts have only poured fuel on the fire. By this account, engaging with the skeptics is pointless because they cannot be won over. They have gone beyond the pale, taking their arguments to the public and distributing e-mails hacked from personal computer accounts rather than trying to work things out at conferences and in journal papers.

Which of these stories is more accurate would not matter much if the field of science in question was cosmology, say, or paleontology, or some other area without any actual impact on people’s lives. Climate science obviously is not like that. The experts broadly agree that it will take massive changes in agriculture, energy production, and more to avert a potential disaster.

In this context, figuring out how to shape the public debate is a matter of survival. If people and governments are going to take serious action, it pretty much has to be now, because any delay will make efforts to stave off major climate change much more expensive and difficult to achieve. But the COP15 climate negotiations in Copenhagen last December ended in a watered-down policy document, with no legally binding commitments for countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Following Copenhagen, the U.S. Senate was unable to pass even a modest “cap and trade” bill that would have mandated reductions. And in the wake of Climategate a year ago and widespread attacks on the IPCC and on climate science in general, the public may be more confused than ever about what to think. Is Curry making things worse or better?

Over to the Dark Side

Curry’s saga began with a Science paper she co-authored in 2005, which linked an increase in powerful tropical cyclones to global warming. It earned her scathing attacks on skeptical climate blogs. They claimed there were serious problems with the hurricane statistics the paper relied on, particularly from before the 1970s, and that she and her co-authors had failed to take natural variability sufficiently into account. “We were generally aware of these problems when we wrote the paper,” Curry says, “but the critics argued that these issues were much more significant than we had acknowledged.”

She did not necessarily agree with the criticisms, but rather than dismissing them, as many scientists might have done, she began to engage with the critics. “The lead author on the paper, Peter J. Webster, supports me in speaking with skeptics,” Curry says, “and we now have very cordial interactions with Chris Landsea (whom we were at loggerheads with in 2005/2006), and we have had discussions with Pat Michaels on this subject.” In the course of engaging with the skeptics, Curry ventured onto a blog run by Roger Pielke, Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado who is often critical of the climate science establishment, and onto Climate Audit, run by statistician Steve McIntyre. The latter, Curry adds, “became my blog of choice, because I found the discussions very interesting and I thought, ‘Well, these are the people I want to reach rather than preaching to the converted over at [the mainstream climate science blog] RealClimate.’”

It was here that Curry began to develop respect for climate outsiders—or at least, some of them. And it made her reconsider her uncritical defense of the IPCC over the years. Curry says, “I realize I engaged in groupthink myself”—not on the hurricane paper per se but more broadly in her unquestioning acceptance of the idea that IPCC reports represent the best available thinking about climate change.

She says she always trusted the IPCC to gather and synthesize all the disparate threads in this complex and multifaceted area of science. “I had 90 to 95 percent confidence in the IPCC Working Group 1 report,” she states, referring to the basic-science section of the three-part report. But even then, she harbored some doubts. In areas where she had some expertise—clouds and sea ice, for example—she felt that the report’s authors were not appropriately careful. “I was actually a reviewer for the IPCC Third Assessment Report,” Curry says, “on the subject of atmospheric aerosols [that is, particles such as dust and soot that affect cloud formation]. I told them that their perspective was far too simplistic and that they didn’t even mention the issue of aerosol impacts on the nucleation of ice clouds. So it’s not so much as finding things that were wrong, but rather ignorance that was unrecognized and confidence that was overstated.” In retrospect, she laughs, “if people expert in other areas were in the same boat, then that makes me wonder.”

Apparently few others felt the same way; of the many hundreds of scientists involved in that report, which came out in 2001, only a handful have claimed their views were ignored—although the Third Assessment Report could not possibly reflect any one scientist’s perspective perfectly.

Still, once Curry ventured out onto the skeptic blogs, the questions she saw coming from the most technically savvy of the outsiders—including statisticians, mechanical engineers and computer modelers from industry—helped to solidify her own uneasiness. “Not to say that the IPCC science was wrong, but I no longer felt obligated in substituting the IPCC for my own personal judgment,” she said in a recent interview posted on the Collide-a-Scape climate blog.

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