Climate Change Repartee: Report and Retort

by Bill Chameides | May 23rd, 2011
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 20 comments

How a recent report on climate change put me toe to toe with Congressional climate refudiaters.

Released on May 12th and representing the culmination of two years’ work and the study of decades of research, “America’s Climate Choices” was written by a group of scientists formed at the behest of Congress to offer advice on how to respond to global warming. In the wake of its release, the report by the National Academies’ Committee on America’s Climate Choices has engendered some interesting repartee.

The report reached three major conclusions:

  • Climate change is occurring, is very likely primarily due to human activities, and poses serious risks;
  • Because of these risks, there is a “pressing” need for action to lower greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change; and
  • Because there will always be uncertainties, the wisest course of action is one that attempts to manage risks using a flexible, iterative approach that allows for the incorporation of new information.

The first two points — clearly more in the re-affirming as opposed to the plowing-new-ground category — were important in our opinion in light of the hits climate science has taken in the last few years.

Back and Forth in the Media

This re-affirming aspect of the report led to an interesting, indirect exchange between Representative Joe Barton (R-TX) and the Washington Post’s editorial board. The congressman dismissed the report for its lack of anything “substantive” or new, and the Washington Post, agreeing on the “nothing new” front, responded that, true, “none of this is news. But it is newsworthy, sadly, because … the U.S. government … [has] moved so far from reality and responsibility in their approach to climate change.”

There was also a little tete-a-tete between USA Today‘s editorial board and lead climate refudiater Senator James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma (which, along with Texas, is a top oil-producing state).

A Pas de Deux in the Nation’s Capitol

As my co-authors and I made the rounds last week briefing Congress and the administration on our report, I got a taste of the banter around climate science that now passes for debate in our nation’s capitol. The highlight of this experience began with this chestnut from a legislative aid in the Senate:

“All this is well and good, but how do I respond to my colleagues who flatly say that all climate scientists are frauds and are not be believed?”

Yikes, what a question. How do you respond to something like that when you’re a climate scientist? I rummaged through my mind and came up with three possibilities.

I could take umbrage …

As a climate scientist, I find such statements not worthy of a reply. It seems to me that our nation has become too agile at trotting out baseless, personal attacks — be they affronts to professional integrity, for example, or the impugning of one’s citizenship.

We owe it to ourselves and our country to quash such nonsense so that we can focus on real, difficult issues. We should refuse to allow people to use these tactics to obscure the discourse we need to have on important challenges. And it should not fall to climate scientists to defend themselves against scurrilous attacks; it should be the duty of all responsible citizens.

Or, I could match absurdity for absurdity …

Frauds? Maybe so. But you know about those climate climate deniers, right? It’s been established that they’re not Americans. They’re not even humans. Heck, they’re not even animals. That’s right, they’re vegetables! Pod people sent by aliens from another planet to inhabit the Earth, snatch our nation’s best minds and bodies, and use their newfound personas to prevent us from taking action on climate change. The aliens, they’re smart, they know that our inaction will lay the groundwork for an all-out pod-people invasion and ultimately spell humanity’s demise. So say what you will about climate scientists, but be careful. At least we’ve got red blood flowing in our veins.

Or, I could adopt a more measured, rational response.

Refudiaters’ claims of “fraud” and “hoaxes” show a complete lack of understanding of the scientific process and the motivation that drives scientists.

In case you didn’t know, scientists do not hang around in back rooms plotting to fool the public. Our aim in life is not to confirm existing dogma; we do not dream of writing paper after paper confirming what everyone already knows.

On the contrary, our driving ambition is to upset the apple cart, to prove everyone wrong (when that is the case), to revolutionize scientific thinking so profoundly that maybe we get an equation or a principle named after us, assuring years and years of ample research funding.

If I (and, I daresay, the majority of my colleagues) could prove that the climate is not changing or that human activities were not a cause or that the risks were minimal, we would do it in a heartbeat and our reputations would be made. Suffice it to say no one has been able to do so in a scientifically rigorous way because the evidence points in the other direction.

Folks, the science is not the issue. We need to start a new conversation on climate change — on the risks we face and the choices we will make as a nation to confront those risks. It is the conclusion of our report that the time to begin that conversation in earnest has arrived.

So those were my three ideas. But the clock was ticking, the people at the briefing were waiting, all eyes were on me and I had to choose. Which one do you think I went with?

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  1. Tom Sharpless
    May 31, 2011

    Get back to 350 ppm CO2 which is what we had in 1987. It’s now 393 ppm and climbing nearly 2 ppm per year. The cost, though huge, will be trivial compared to the dividends. Examples are the controls on sulfur emissions stopping lake acidification, precursor controls limiting tropospheric ozone, CFC controls limiting damage to stratospheric ozone.

  2. MattN
    May 31, 2011

    “Refudiaters’ claims of “fraud”€ and “hoaxes”€ show a complete lack of understanding of the scientific process and the motivation that drives scientists.” Seriously, Doc? SERIOUSLY? You have Michael Mann and colleagues cutting out tree ring data because they don’t like the way it looks and then splice on temperature data and VOILA! That wouldn’t pass in 8th grade science class. Holy cow, Doc! You often throw stones from the porch of your glass house??? Scientific method. Please. What would Mann/ know about the scientific method? They spent whole careers completely ignoring it…

    • Bill Chameides
      Jun 7, 2011

      You completely misinterpret (I assume) Mann. His methodology was fully described in his papers – I could be wrong, since it’s been a while since I was in the 8th grade, but I suspect his statistical methods are well beyond the ken of most 8th graders and that’s perhaps why “some” people have trouble with it.

      • MattN
        Jun 7, 2011

        It is unamuzing and unconvincing. You know exactly what I’m talking about. Post-1960 tree-ring data is removed from a proxy because it goes one way while temperature goes another and that looks funny and we can;t have people asking questions like that so let’s JUST IGNORE IT! As a scientist, you should know that you don’t get to ignore data just because you don’t like it. That’s not science. Mann’s “science” has been discredited time and time again for the pseudo-science that it is. You and other partizans just refuse to admit it is faulty and incorrectly done…

        • Chris Winter
          Jun 13, 2011

          The cognitive dissonance brought about by those last two paragraphs ought to be making your head spin. You’re following the standard pattern of many “skeptics” — to keep harping on one tiny discrepancy (whether real or apparent), while ignoring the mountains of data supporting the view you’re trying to reject.

          • MattN
            Jun 13, 2011

            Pretty typical response. That is not “one tiny discrepency” Chris. The “hockey stick” is the foundation of the AGW movement. EVERYTHING is in support of it. Everything is in support of a completely bogus graph. If you think this is the only “tiny discrepency” you are not paying attention…

            • Chris Winter
              Jun 14, 2011

              Not a tiny discrepancy? How much can the work of one Mann count in the long saga of the investigation of Earth’s climate? You could make a better case for SwiftHack (aka “ClimateGate”) discrediting AGW — but only slightly better, since the CRU at East Anglia was only a small part of the worldwide team working on global warming, and even if their work had been found baseless, it would not have discredited all other work in the field. This is what I meant by “mountains of data.” MBH98 is not perfect, but it’s been found substantially correct, and later work has corroborated it multiple times. You really need to try and comprehend those facts. And while you’re at it, brush up on the meaning of “ad hominem.”

              • MattN
                Jun 15, 2011

                …how predictable you are. “How much can the work of one Mann count in the long saga of the investigation of Earth’s climate?” Please. It is the single most cited graph in the history of climate science. It was prominently featured in the IPCC TAR. It was the cornerstone of Al Gore’s powerpoint presentation. Feigning ignorance of its importance is insulting to everyone’s intellignece. “but it’s been found substantially correct, and later work has corroborated it multiple times…” …by Mann’s co-workers. And only Mann’s co-workers. Not one single “corroboration” has been independant. “brush up on the meaning of “ad hominem.” That would be where you just attack the person. Kinda like when you just labeled me a skeptic and didn’t actually say anything to refute that Mann engaged in scientific fraud when he deleted data and spliced in thermometer readings to create “the stick.”

                • Chris Winter
                  Jun 16, 2011

                  “That would be where you just attack the person. Kinda like when you just labeled me a skeptic and didn’t actually say anything to refute that Mann engaged in scientific fraud when he deleted data and spliced in thermometer readings to create “the stick.” Now you’re conflating two scientific papers, written IIRC about ten years apart. Once again I’m criticizing something you’ve done, not attacking you as a person. So you still don’t “grok” the meaning of ad hominem. You want to keep your mind stuck in this rut, fine. I won’t waste any more time trying to tell you how things really are.

                  • MattN
                    Jun 17, 2011

                    You think his 2008 paper was the first time he did that? If so, then you are delusional. If you cannot understand how deleting valid data because it does not agree with your hypothesis is fradulent, then there’s nothing more I can do for you. This subject is too important to pull Micky Moust BS stunts like that. Too much is at stake. I’m done with this discussion. Keep sticking your head in the sand…. 6/17

            • Bill Chameides
              Jun 16, 2011

              MattN: You are wrong. The accuracy of the hockey stick is not dispositive about current climate change and its cause. Beware of the ignoratio elenchi.

        • Bill Chameides
          Jun 16, 2011

          MattN: If you chose to ignore a set of data and include that fact in your analysis and explain why, you are working in an aboveboard way. The post-1960 tree ring data is a puzzle, even a disturbing puzzle, and it calls into question, in my mind, the validity of using tree ring data at all. Fortunately, tree rings are not our only source of data for paleoclimate, and fortunately the validity or invalidity of the so-called Mann hockey stick is not central to the issue of whether the climate is changing today and why it is occurring. This issue has been covered in this blog multiple times.

          • MattN
            Jun 17, 2011

            Doc, tree rings are THE ONLY proxy Mann can find that gives them a hockey stick shape. That and the one sediment sample that was know to be invalid due to it being disturbed from construction (although Mann sure didn’t let that stop him from using it, yet another bad science move, but I digress…) Whenever you see a hockey stick, you can 100% be certain there’s a tree ring proxy in there. Reconstructions without tree rings show a prominent MWP as warm or warmer than today and NO hockey stick. There a multiple published studies.

  3. Tom Sharpless
    May 26, 2011

    I’m guessing you chose to rebut, because that is what we need a lot more of. Perhaps we thought Al Gore did a credible job presenting the problem and we decided to wait out the denyers. We underestimated the ability of journalists to distinguish between sense and nonsense. It’s painful but we need to give the counter-argument to every outlandish claim.

    • Travis
      May 31, 2011

      If the defenders of AGW painfully need to repond to the refudiators, please tell us who knows the correct price and amount of carbon? What is the refudiator’s corect allocation? Thanks

    • Bill Chameides
      Jun 7, 2011

      Middle of the road was my choice.

  4. Travis
    May 26, 2011

    Dr. Chameides: How do you propose that this measured, rational response be made? Let us assume that climate scientists know everything there is to know about the climate. How many of them also know everyhing there is to know about human action and economics? It should be obvious to any “rational” observer that individuals in government understand little or nothing about economics. They do understand force, and as Lord Acton so aptly put it, power corrupts. So, who should decide how we allocate our scarce resources to deal with climate change in a way that the cure is not worse than the disease? How much CO2 is too much CO2? What is the correct price of carbon? Should EPA get the jack-booted power to put a number on these and many other questions regarding the correct allocation, or is there a better way. In science-speak, what is the pareto-optimal answer? Travis

    • Jim
      Jun 2, 2011

      As far as how much CO2 is too much, that would need to be determined by an independent board of scientists and policy makers that would decide how much uncertainty we are willing to risk, probably anywhere from 350 to 450. As to the price of carbon, if you use a cap & trade system, then at least the free market can to some extent determine that pricing. But it also depends on how much and how fast the experts and policy makers decided we need to limit CO2. We will never know everything about everything, so waiting until we feel we know enough to determine an exact target is not acceptable as the damage to our environment is already occurring and it takes centuries and more for the CO2 to be naturally sequestered from the atmosphere.

  5. Timeslayer
    May 23, 2011

    Please do tell which one you went with. TS

    • Bill Chameides
      Jun 7, 2011

      What do you think?

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