Climate Change and Climate Certainty

From the New York Times:

April 27, 2010, 2:05 pm

On Climate Certainty and Climate Credibility

By ANDREW C. REVKIN

In 2003, Judith Curry, a climate researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology, wrote the following passage in a submission to a federal effort aimed at charting how to reduce uncertainties in the science pointing to a growing human influence on climate:

“Reducing uncertainty” is probably not the appropriate goal; we should instead focus on “increasing credibility.” (Read the rest.)

She weighed in on this issue long before she became embroiled in what has become an ongoing battle with many colleagues over how to get climate inquiry back on track following controversies involving the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the unauthorized release of some climate researchers’ email messages and files. Curry alludes to her 2003 essay in  a remarkable exchange with the journalist Keith Kloor on his Collide-a-Scape blog. I urge you to explore his posts there over the last week or so involving Curry, along with the ongoing exchanges in the comment stream and on  other blogs.

If only more researchers had listened to her back in 2003, perhaps there might have been less turbulence in the discourse over global warming in the last year or so. Scientists always want to find ways to reduce the uncertainty in findings, but — in the heated arena where climate research meets climate decisions — they have not always been quick to state clearly when they are certain that some aspects of the climate challenge won’t be easily clarified any time soon. This is the arena of “ known unknowns” so awkwardly laid out, in the context of Iraq policy, by Donald Rumsfeld a few years back.

To my mind, the tendency by many climate campaigners and some scientists to downplay, run away from — or, at the very least, ignore — the real complexity and uncertainty surrounding many points of climate science gave easy ammunition to some of those I call “stasists” in their efforts to undermine public credibility even in the basics.

Any case for action that downplays the durable and (unmanufactured) uncertainty surrounding vital aspects of global warming science is bound to fail in the end.

Unfortunately for policymakers and the public, while the basic science pointing to a rising human influence on climate is clear, many of the most important questions will remain surrounded by deep complexity and uncertainty for a long time to come: the  pace at which seas will rise, the extent of warming from a certain buildup of greenhouse gases (climate sensitivity), the impact on hurricanes, the particular effects in particular places (what global warming means for Addis Ababa or Atlanta).

This is why it’s good that Paul Krugman, among others, has pointed to the work of Martin Weitzman at Harvard, who’s been making the point for awhile that the economic logic of action on emissions comes as much from  what is not known about the worst-case risks as what is already established.

And that doesn’t even get into what one Defense Department analyst I met once called “unk unks” — Pentagon shorthand for “unknown unknowns.” Those are the potential outcomes from a human jolt to the climate system that Steve Pacala at Princeton refers to as the “monsters behind the door.”

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One response to this post.

  1. shoot amazing stuff man.

    Reply

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