An eminent climate scientist working to hold government officials accountable

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“Time is running out. If an agreement isn’t possible in the next 2, 3, or 4 years, it may be too late to prevent serious climatic consequences….Unless the negotiations can find the political will to agree on enforceable and meaningful (= large) cuts in emissions, the climate is going to degrade. That’s just a fact,” says Dr. Richard Somerville, distinguished atmospheric scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, coordinating lead author of the IPCC 2007 Fourth Assessment Report, and signer of the 2007 Bali Climate Declaration by Scientists. 

This post is by Rick Piltz.

In a column in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists online (“Reflections on the U.N. climate change negotiations in Bali”), Richard C. J. Somerville recalls U.S. atmospheric scientist F. Sherwood Rowland, who would later share the Nobel Prize in chemistry, saying to a journalist in frustration at the slow pace of government action to deal with stratospheric ozone depletion, “What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions, if in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true!”

Somerville is trying not to be one of the scientists who would allow that to happen. He says, “Today, I feel exactly the same way about the procrastination and posturing that too many governments have substituted for meaningful action to limit global warming.”

He was one of the signers of the 2007 Bali Climate Declaration by Scientists—a group that included many leaders of the climate science research community—and represented the signers at the 2007 Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in Bali, Indonesia.

Somerville reported in his column:

“The 2007 Bali Climate Declaration by Scientists had the immediate goal of asking the negotiators to reach an agreement limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above the preindustrial temperature. Global warming is simply a symptom or measure of the magnitude of climate change, and 2 degrees Celsius is widely thought to be a low enough reasonable consensus estimate to prevent dangerous climate change. In fact, the European Union and other countries have already formally adopted this limit.

What actions are needed to ensure that the 2 degree Celsius target isn’t exceeded? This is where climate science has a key role to play. While we cannot know safe greenhouse gas concentrations or emission limits exactly—just as medical science cannot specify a precise value as a safe limit on, say, cholesterol—the science summarized in the 2007 IPCC report does provide excellent quantitative guidance.

The IPCC, which is mandated to be policy-neutral, cannot make policy recommendations. However, once a policy maker accepts 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels as a target upper bound on allowable warming, then the IPCC report describes approximately what the limit must be for greenhouse gas concentration, in what year carbon dioxide emissions must peak before declining, and what percentage reduction in emissions is needed.

Somerville found the results of the conference “deeply disappointing, but not surprising”:

In the end, after much bitterness, the negotiators reached an agreement to continue negotiating over the next two years, but they didn’t come close to agreeing on the substance of such an agreement….What’s clear scientifically, however, is that time is running out. If an agreement isn’t possible in the next 2, 3, or 4 years, it may be too late to prevent serious climatic consequences….

[W]hat will it take to make large numbers of people increase the priority that they now give to this issue? Perhaps it will take some sudden, shocking, and unambiguous climate event such as the destabilization of a large part of the Greenland ice sheet and a sharp increase in sea level. The ozone hole would be a parallel case historically. It would be a pity if we needed to wait for that, which is like waiting to have a heart attack rather than heeding a physician’s warnings about cholesterol and weight. In climate science as in medical science, prevention is better than a cure, but not everybody is wise enough to act early.

There is a divergence of views in the climate science community on this issue of the appropriate role of scientific expertise vis-a-vis the practice of citizenship—where citizenship involves taking a position on issues requiring policy decisionmaking, i.e., advising policymakers and the public on the scientist’s expertise-based view of the implications of current scientific understanding—and not speaking simply in the language of natural science.

Andy Revkin of the New York Times, in his Dot Earth blog, touched on this divergence in a post focused on Somerville (“The Road from Climate Science to Climate Advocacy”). Revkin wrote:

Richard C. J. Somerville, a climatologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography near San Diego, is one of a growing array of scientists who have chosen to move beyond studying heat transfer and cloud physics and take on the role of activist: prodding society to move aggressively to cut greenhouse gases….

“For me, and maybe for many, I think that ‘going public’ and making a statement as an individual, who is also a climate expert, is simply a next logical step,” Dr. Somerville said. “After all, many politicians have said that scientists should be heard from more. As long as we are always at pains to make clear that we are speaking only as individuals, not on behalf of our employers or other organizations, then I think we are just behaving as good citizens.”

But Revkin notes:

Other scientists disagree with this kind of activism, most notably Susan Solomon, who was the co-leader of the 2007 I.P.C.C. assessment of climate trends. In an email exchange on the general issue of scientists and policy debate last weekend (just before she flew to Antarctica), she said: “If we as scientists go beyond what we know into our personal opinions and values, we begin to engage in the same sort of personal speculation masquerading as authoritative that we dislike when it is done by the skeptics.”

Well. Dr. Solomon is one of the most eminent and respected scientists in her field, and led the production of the comprehensive and authoritative Working Group I climate science report as part of the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the organization that deservedly was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. However, unless Revkin has misrepresented her basic position on the type of citizen-scientist role that Somerville and others of his colleagues have chosen to play, then I think her position is incorrect and evasive. She should re-think it.

First of all, it seems inadequate to speak in terms of a dichotomy between “what we know,” on the one hand, and “personal opinions” and “personal speculation,” on the other, as though there were no intellectual terrain between “knowing” something with, say, 95 percent confidence, and being reduced to something like speculative, amateurish punditry. It’s as though scientists, including those who write the IPCC assesssments, have nothing to offer to an actual dialogue with policymakers in terms of policymakers’ decisionmaking jurisdiction.

On the contrary, what policymakers need from the climate science community does not end with technical reports on the current state of scientific understanding. They also need scientists’ synthesis of and expert judgments about the state of knowledge in terms of its implications for policymaking and societal decisionmaking. Policymakers need scientists to advise them in the context of assessing and managing the risks of climate change, and on the implications of their decisions about adaptation and mitigation response strategies. 

And we need an ongoing two-way communication along these lines—much more direct communication between scientists and decisionmakers than we have at present. With all due respect and admiration, I believe the IPCC underperforms significantly in the area of ongoing two-way communication with society about the assessment findings and their implications. There is room for major improvement, and this should become a high priority for the IPCC. Before the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report and any future Special Reports go forward, the IPCC should, up front, be expected devise a meaningful strategy for how the findings of the assessment reports will be communicated to policymakers and other nonscientists, and expectations should be established up front for the communication responsibilities of the working groups chairs and lead authors. The IPCC should develop additional capabilities in this area.

(See our February 9 post, “US State Dept. request for comments on the future of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”)

The problem of global climatic disruption is far too serious to think that society is well-served by a separation between scientists and decisionmaking—with scientists speaking only the language of “what we know” and failing to speak of “here are what we see as the implications for your decisionmaking of what we know, and the implications for society of your actions.” Somerville, like a number of his fellow scientists who have made an effort to communicate with policymakers and other nonscientists, seems to understand this.

Finally, it strikes me as inappropriate for Solomon to characterize as a “masquerade” the actions of leading scientists who lend their expertise to working with their fellow citizens to diagnose the risks of climate change and seek solutions to managing those risks. In particular, I believe it does a disservice to analogize them to what she somewhat euphemistically refers to as “the skeptics.” The mainstream science community and the policy arena have been assaulted for years by an orchestrated campaign of global warming denialism and disinformation. Scientists like Somerville are part of the antidote to this campaign. Solomon should be able to get the distinction between those who are misrepresenting the state of scientific understanding as presented by the IPCC and those who are setting the record straight—in the public arena, not just in the technical literature that only scientists read.

I would not presume to tell Susan Solomon nor any other scientist how they should define their own personal role vis-a-vis the policy arena. Solomon may well be right to remain policy-neutral herself, especially as she has such a high-profile association with the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report as a working group co-chair. And some scientists are simply not cut out for a public role outside the world of research. I am not seeking to provoke a division within the science community that would serve no good interest. However, those who withdraw from the policy arena should acknowledge that others among their colleagues can reasonably differ and that it can be legitimate for them to choose a more active role.

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