Restoring Faith in Climate Science

The NYT reports on various efforts to restore the credibility of climate science and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in the wake of “ClimateGate” and the discovery of a handful false claims and misrepresentation of scientific research in portions of the IPCC reports.

The unauthorized release last fall of hundreds of e-mail messages from a major climate research center in England, and more recent revelations of a handful of errors in a supposedly authoritative United Nations report on climate change, have created what a number of top scientists say is a major breach of faith in their research. They say the uproar threatens to undermine decades of work and has badly damaged public trust in the scientific enterprise.

The e-mail episode, dubbed “climategate” by critics, revealed arrogance and what one top climate researcher called “tribalism” among some scientists. The correspondence appears to show efforts to limit publication of contrary opinion and to evade Freedom of Information Act requests. The content of the messages opened some well-known scientists to charges of concealing temperature data from rival researchers and manipulating results to conform to precooked conclusions. . . .

A survey conducted in late December by Yale University and George Mason University found that the number of Americans who believed that climate change was a hoax or scientific conspiracy had more than doubled since 2008, to 16 percent of the population from 7 percent. An additional 13 percent of Americans said they thought that even if the planet was warming, it was a result solely of natural factors and was not a significant concern.

Climate scientists have been shaken by the criticism and are beginning to look for ways to recover their reputation. They are learning a little humility and trying to make sure they avoid crossing a line into policy advocacy. . . .

A number of institutions are beginning efforts to improve the quality of their science and to make their work more transparent. The official British climate agency is undertaking a complete review of its temperature data and will make its records and analysis fully public for the first time, allowing outside scrutiny of methods and conclusions. The United Nations panel on climate change will accept external oversight of its research practices, also for the first time.

Two universities are investigating the work of top climate scientists to determine whether they have violated academic standards and undermined faith in science. The National Academy of Sciences is preparing to publish a nontechnical paper outlining what is known — and not known — about changes to the global climate. And a vigorous debate is under way among climate scientists on how to make their work more transparent and regain public confidence.

These are all positive steps, but the problems for climate science are deeper.  As ASU’s Dan Sarewitz explains in Nature, part of the problem has been that participants in the climate policy debate have focuses on climate science, as if some climate consensus could translate into clear policy mandates.  This is fool’s errand, as climate science will not generate the requisite degree of certainty, let alone consensus policy prescriptions in the absence of a broader political consensus.  He writes:

The idea that a mounting weight of scientific evidence would gradually overwhelm ideological opposition to the climate policy regime is not just false but backwards. Science is muchmore pliable and permissive than deeply held beliefs about how the world should work. Scientific understanding of the complex, coupled ocean–atmosphere–society system is always incomplete, and gives the competing sides plenty of support for their pre-existing political preferences — as well as plenty to hide behind in claiming that those preferences are supported by science. Science can decisively support policy only after fundamental political differences have been resolved.

Science may tell us that certain emission projections create a risk of certain climatic changes, but it won’t tell us what (if anything) to do about it, as such policy prescriptions are also dependent upon normative judgments that may be informed, but not dictated, by scientific conclusions.  Sarewitz further argues that conservatives and liberals alike have to stop pretending as if science does — or even can — support only their preferred policy approach.

Speaking of those who pretend as if climate science supports their preferred policy agenda, and no other, Joe Romm of the Center for American Progress has been challenged to debate climate policy with Roger Pielke Jr. to be hosted by Foreign Policy. But it seems this debate won’t take place.  Romm regularly attacks Pielke’s work on his blog, for even though Pielke believes climate change is a serious problem, he disagrees with Romm’s policy prescriptions.  Yet even after several dozen anti-Pielke comments and blog posts, Romm is refusing to go mano-a-mano.

What’s going on?  Some advocates of steep emission reductions refuse to debate those who argue against the existence of an anthropogenic contribution to global warming because they don’t want to “legitimize” such perspectives, but not Romm.  He’s debated Marc Morano of Climate Depot, among other so-called “skeptics.”  Then why not debate a non-skeptic like Pielke?  Perhaps because this would require the admission that there is a greater diversity of mainstream liberal policy views about climate change.  Debating Pielke could force Romm to admit that one can believe climate change is a serious concern, and nonetheless believe there are problems with the IPCC process and conventional emission-reduction proposals.  Perhaps such an admission poses a greater threat to Romm’s narrative (and  “Climate McCarthyism”) than the actual skeptics. More from Ron Bailey here.