Scientists ill-equipped to deal with all-out war on climate science community


At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a panel of eminent scientists agreed they and their colleagues should have responded more quickly and effectively to news about a few errors in the 2007 IPCC climate change assessment report and to allegations about hacked researcher e-mails—but they characterized the public impact of these controversies as far out of proportion to the overwhelming evidence that human activity is changing the Earth’s climate, with profound implications.

“The situation is completely out of hand,” ScienceNOW reported Texas A&M climate scientist Gerald North saying at the event. “One guy e-mailed me to say I’m a ‘whore for the global warming crowd.’ Scientists cannot use the same tone and rhetorical style as commentators and bloggers,” he said. For example, how can scientists be expected to respond to this kind of incitement from the bizarre extremist talk show host Glenn Beck on Fox News: “If the IPCC had been done by Japanese scientists, there’s not enough knives on planet Earth for hara-kiri that should have occurred.” This is not a science education problem—it’s much worse than that. 

From a February 19 AAAS news report

“There has been no change in the scientific community, no change whatsoever,” in the consensus that global average temperatures have been steadily climbing since the mid-20th century, “said Jerry North, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University [and chair of a National Research Council study on the paleoclimate temperature record].

In addition to North, the panel included, among others, Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academies of Science and chair of the National Research Council. … Cicerone said the appearance—if not the reality—of a rift within the research community has “corroded ” the climate debate in a way that “may spread over to other kinds of science.”

Scientists need to redouble their efforts to share the implications of climate change with the public, he said, by breaking down the numbers and showing how the often-cited global average temperature rise of 3 degrees Centigrade could actually send temperatures over the land soaring nearly to nearly 9 degrees in the next few decades.

“A lot of what we need to do,” said Cicerone, “is translate basic information into terms the public can understand.

Eli Kintisch reported on the event in the AAAS publication ScienceNOW on February 19 (excerpt):

Scientists Grapple With ‘Completely Out of Hand’ Attacks on Climate Science

… At a time when the biggest headlines on science have been over the flaws or legitimacy of climate science, said Cicerone, recent skirmishes over climate research “have really shaken the confidence of the public in the conduct of science [overall].” …

Climate researchers have taken the biggest hit. They are feeling the brunt of what IPCC author Chris Field has described as a “feeding frenzy” since the November e-mail release. [Dr. Field is currently co-chair of the forthcoming IPCC Working Group 2 Fifth Assessment Report on Impacts, Vulnerability, and Adaptation.] …

Scientists repeatedly admitted how ill-equipped they were for the political fight into which they’ve found themselves flung. “We are very immature in our public communications,” North said. “We need some coaching.” Harvard University policy expert Sheila Jasanoff, whose presentation focused largely on philosophical issues related to science and society, allowed that scientists had made a “tactical error” in not responding explicitly in public to attacks.

The press is responsible for much of the dire straits in which climate scientists now find themselves, the researchers said. For example, commentators have made “careless” assertions that large snowfall on the U.S. Eastern seaboard undermined global warming patterns, says Cicerone. That’s particularly frustrating for scientists who generally believe that a warmer atmosphere would mean a wetter and therefore snowier one. “The reporting on this has been truly abominable,” said ocean scientist James McCarthy [chairman of the AAAS Board and Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography at Harvard University].

But McCarthy said that scientists had made plenty of mistakes on their own. Critics, for example, have uncovered a handful of errors in the 2007 IPCC report, including a false assertion that Himalayan glaciers would melt away by 2035. “The scientific community has been powerless” McCarthy said, to respond to attacks on the fundamental authority of IPCC, seemingly undermined by “two sentences on glaciers.” Small errors in the 2007 report were “careless” and minor he said, but IPCC should have done a full and public examination to describe how they had come about. “The names of the authors, who was on the review, what happened—it all should have been up there, and it wasn’t done. And I think that the institution was hurt as a result,” he said.

We fully agree with Dr. McCarthy on this point and have raised concerns about the IPCC leadership’s deplorable handling of the controversy.

Earlier posts:
February 5: Questions to an IPCC co-chair on ensuring the credibility of IPCC leadership and communications

February 8: Climate Progress interviews Christopher Field and Michael MacCracken on climate change reality

January 21: Worldwide glacier melt a real concern; Himalaya controversy leaves questions about IPCC leadership

January 19: IPCC slips on the ice with statement about Himalayan glaciers

December 7, 2009: Open Letter to Congress from U.S. Scientists on Climate Change and Recently Stolen Emails

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