Changing Climate Science and Changing Change Agents

This entry is by Spectrum staffer Sally Adee:

On Wednesday night Columbia University held a panel discussion to commemorate the release of a new book called Climate Change: Picturing the Science, edited by Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, and photographer Josh Wolfe. The book, born of a 2005 show Wolfe curated called â''Photographersâ'' Perspectives on Global Warming,â'' was produced in partnership with scientists from Columbia University's Earth Institute and documentary photographers. It bills itself as â''an unprecedented union of scientific analysis and stunning photography [that] illustrates the effects of climate change on global ecosystems and human society.â''

The panel, moderated by New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert, featured Schmidt and Wolfe, Peter deMenocal, a paleoclimatologist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Stephanie Pfirman, a polar scientist at Barnard College, and scientists from the Earth Institute at Columbia.

The main themes of the evening were the complexity and fluidity of climate science, interweaving policy, politics and science, and evolving public attitudes. As a reporter, I consider myself a great testbed for the various arguments because I have no real background in climate change. I am the uninformed publicâ''and like much of the public, I suspect, I feel that the climate change debate tends to be a magnet for sanctimony on all sides.

The audience at Columbia seemed firmly in the camp of the believers and was preoccupied mainly with deflecting attacks by deniers. One of the things climate change deniers seize on, the panel agreed, is the multi-facedness of the science, which is always changing. Pfirman, a former congressional house staffer at the House Committee on Science and Technology, wrote a chapter in the book on sea ice. She said she kept having to send and re-send updates because even as she was writing it, the situation in the Arctic was changing so rapidly. That was part of a larger discussion on how things are happening much more quickly than had been projected. And yet, ice in the Arctic does not melt evenly.

â''The [scientific] questions are more sophisticated than they were five years ago,â'' said Schmidt, and models are always being updated. â''Uncertainty is not our friend,â'' he said, worrying about how public confidence is affected. â''We struggle with articulating the science so that people feel that they are being given information, not an angle,â'' said deMonocal.

With the panel and audience largely in agreement, attention tended to focus on how to deal with dissentersâ''not always constructively, perhaps.

Peter deMenocal said that his name appears on a list of 200 scientists who supposedly believe that global warming is a hoax, despite his obvious beliefs to the contrary. He said that when he lodged a complaint with the keeper of the list, his message went unanswered. â''Two dead scientists are on that list with me,â'' panned the paleoclimatologist.

Fair enough, assuming what he said is vaid. But what about serious critics of mainstream climatology? Nobody liked The New York Timesâ'' recent profile of Freeman Dyson, the physicist who has questioned the gravity and significance of global warming. But the general reaction was to assault the messengers rather than engage the message. A shaggily bearded man in a rumpled-suit asked whether the newspaper has become an â''actively hostile force.â'' As for Dyson, â''This is another in a long line of scientists who knows just enough to be dangerous,â'' said another.

Dyson, along with others, thinks climate scientists rely too much on computer-generated climate models that foresee what the Times call a Grand Guignol of devastationâ''icecaps melt, oceans rise, and storms and plagues sweep the earth. â''The climate-studies people who work with models always tend to overestimate their models,â'' Dyson told the Times. â''They come to believe models are real and forget they are only models.â''

I hate to say it, but he has a point.

Why do the climate scientists seem so paranoid about contrarian views, especially when they come from physicists? In late February, after physics leader Will Happer testified before Congress on global warming, his testimony was chopped up into out-of-context pieces and ridiculed around the internet. (Happer was director of energy research at the Department of Energy from 1990 to 1993.)

To judge from the Columbia panel and reactions, climate scientists appear to be constitutionally skeptical of engineering solutions. The book offers a nod to some â''mega-engineeringâ'' projects such as solving the problem of keeping London and New York above the water line in case a 5-meter sea level rise should occur. But it doesnâ''t pay much heed to measures that have been proposed to actually prevent climate change. Dysonâ''s notion of genetically engineering a carbon-eating tree came in for the usual ridicule.

Oddly, psychological engineering proved to be an exception. Mass social engineering, the one questioner implied, may be the only way to get everyone to act on the crisis. Responding, Pfirman talked at some length about the new centers on climate and how they were becoming interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary, involving different disciplines such as social science, climate science and psychology. Pfirman said important decisions, like recycling, are influenced by group dynamics. â''People say â''oh, yeah, Iâ''ll recycle,â'' but then they donâ''t,â'' she said. Getting people to change their habits is more about psychology than it is about climate science or computer modeling.

I donâ''t know. Personally, this blogger is more likely to trust in problem solving by engineers than in the ability of social engineers to rejigger human psychology.

--Sally Adee

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