Climate Rancour: What we know and what we don’t

The recent stories about rancour amongst climate scientists raise a number of issues, but fundamentally they reflect badly on all involved.

The gist of the story is that climate skeptics hacked into the e-mail server at the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit and uncovered evidence of bad behaviour on the part of climate scientists. The bad behaviour varies from the acceptable – calling someone a prat in a private e-mail seems pretty understandable to me – to the unacceptable. The unacceptable behaviour includes trying to avoid releasing fundamental data necessary for opponents of their views to make calculations for themselves. It includes discussions about trying ‘strengthen’ conclusions of work. Unsurprisingly, climate skeptics (to crudely label them) have reacted with glee, saying that this validates their assertion that the apparent unanimity of the climate change lobby (to crudely label them!) is a ‘front’. They assert that Climate scientists try to maintain this unanimity for political reasons, and for reasons of profit – the worse the climate gets, the more climate scientists we are likely to employ!

What matters here?

This dispute is noise. What matters here is the science. Questions such as :

  • What (if anything) is happening to the Earth’s climate?
  • Are changes occurring?
  • Are humans involved?
  • How large might the changes be?

And finally the non-science question: Should we be concerned? These tribal spats are irrelevant to the answers which will out in the end. Much of the dispute refers to interpretations of data which establish a baseline trend for climate parameters such the average surface temperature of the Earth. Now measuring this quantity in the present day is fraught with difficulty even with satellites,  many remote weather stations; rapid communications and robust quality systems. Inferring the temperature over the last 100 or 1000 years is fraught with difficulties. Frankly – and speaking as a scientist working in one of the world’s foremost temperature calibration laboratories – I take all the temperature data with a pinch of salt. Basically the measurement is really hard and subject to many assumptions (made for whatever reason). When we see an absolutely indisputable change in global temperature – it will be way too late. So I don’t think this spat really affects my views at all. Wherever people collect themselves into ‘tribes’ such behaviour is regrettable, but pretty much inevitable.

Ask the right question…

My approach to this problem is to ask “How does the Earth get to be the temperature it is in the first place?” This question can be answered by most scientists with relatively little rancour. Even the role of CO2 in determining the climate is relatively undisputed. The increase in the concentration of CO2 due to human activity is also an undisputed fact.  The disputes begin when we try to establish whether humans are affecting the climate. The IPCC says this is ‘very likely’ and I concur. Others disagree, but even the most ardent disagreer would answer ‘possibly’.  The next question is what is going to happen: here I disagree with every scientist I have ever spoken to. The answer is “Nobody knows”. Its really hard and we just don’t know what is going to happen. Our climate models try to include all the effects people can think of, but not one of the climate models predicted in advance the last 10 years of relatively stable temperature. This is not (I think) due to malice or incompetence, but simply the fact that its a really complicated problem! We need to face up to our ignorance and then ask the questions such as ‘What we should do?’ in the context of the fact that we just don’t know what is going to happen.

If scientists try to pretend that they really know what is going to happen then they are setting themselves up for humiliation – and a ‘Crying Wolf’ backlash. We really need to be open and honest about our state of ignorance.

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