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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Gavin Schmidt: a climatologist trying to give out the right signals amid the noise

See also, the post below this one for full transcript of The Edge interview and video.

Gavin Schmidt: a climatologist trying to give out the right signals amid the noise

Leading NASA climate scientist says increasing the level of noise is a useful political tactic in interview in The Edge magazine

Gavin Schmidt, a Nasa climate modeller

Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeller at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Photograph: Christy Field/Other.

by Lee Hickman, The Guardian, July 6, 2009

Anyone who follows the climate change debate closely will no doubt have come across Gavin Schmidt and the website he co-founded called during their online meanderings. Schmidt is a British climatologist and climate modeller based at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and he says that he helped to establish to try to "provide context and background on climate science issues that are often missing in popular media coverage." As you can imagine, he's a busy man.

Schmidt features in this week's edition of The Edge as the latest interviewee in the online magazine's Third Culture series. This regular slot "consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are." A tad grandiose in its premise, but the Third Culture interview often makes for interesting reading.

The Schidmt interview – which runs to more than 7,000 words – allows him the time and space to explain some of the theories and practices that underpin his approach to climatology, particularly the hotly debated area of climate modelling. But, more interestingly perhaps, it offers him the chance to stray into more personal territory, such as how he deals with the online critics who say he and his scientist colleagues are spouting nonsense, or whether it's correct for scientists to ever engage in political advocacy — something his boss at the Goddard Institute, Dr James Hansen, is more than a little partial to.

Here's Schimdt on whether scientists should "get involved in policy":

Personally, I don't pretend to be an economist; I don't pretend to be a sociologist; I don't pretend to be an expert in environmental regulation. So I generally don't comment on whether a cap and trade system is better than a carbon tax system, or whether or not it is better that it is being run by the [US Environmental Protection Agency]. I leave that kind of stuff for the people who focus on that much more specifically, and I'm pretty much willing to find the most interesting and objective of them and give them the benefit of the doubt.

It's clear that there are a lot of people who talk about politics who are neither interesting nor objective. When it comes to discussing what to do about climate change, it appears to be a fact of life that people will use the worst and least intelligent arguments to make political points. If they can do that by sounding pseudoscientific — by quoting a paper here or misrepresenting another scientist's work over there — then they will. That surprised me before I really looked into it. It no longer surprises me.

I don't advocate for political solutions. If I do advocate for something (and if you put your voice into the public sphere, then it has to be to advocate for something. Why would you do it otherwise?). My advocacy is much more towards having more intelligent discussions, which is completely naive and stupid and I realise that.

And here's Schimdt on the "noise" created by the climate change debate, a subject he's touched on before on The Guardian:

In unmoderated forums about climate change, it just devolves immediately into, "you're a Nazi, no you're a fascist," blah, blah, blah. Any semblance of an idea that you could actually talk about what aerosols do to the hydrological cycle without it devolving into name calling seems to be fantasy. It is very tiresome.

The problem is that the noise serves various people's purposes. It's not that the noise is accidental. A lot of the noise when it comes to climate is deliberate because the increase of noise means you don't hear the signal, and if you don't hear the signal you can't do anything about it, and so everything just gets left alone. Increasing the level of noise is a deliberate political tactic. It's been used by all segments of the political spectrum for different problems. With the climate issue in the US and not elsewhere, it's used by a particular segment of the political community in ways that is personally distressing. How do you deal with that? That is a question that I'm always asking myself and I haven't gotten an answer to that one.

You can read and watch the interview in full here.

Link to Guardian blog:

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