Blog Archive

Friday, October 29, 2010

Richard Somerville editorial: How much should the public know about climate science?

by Joseph Romm, Climate Progress, October 29, 2010
Unfortunately, the world needs to take firm action about the threat of manmade climate change within the next decade…   Realistically, there may be no chance to educate the general public in depth about the science so quickly. Meanwhile, a well-funded and effective professional disinformation campaign has been successful in sowing confusion, and many people mistakenly think climate change science is unreliable or is controversial within the expert community. Thus, the more urgent task for us scientists may well be to give the public guidelines for recognizing and rejecting junk science and disinformation. If students today, who will be adults tomorrow, can understand and apply these guidelines, they may not need a detailed knowledge of climate change science. To that end, I offer the following six principles.
Climatologist Richard C. J. Somerville is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.  Although I did my thesis research at Scripps, we’ve never formally met.

Somerville helped organize the must-read 2007 Bali Climate Declaration, in which more than 200 of the world’s leading climate scientist explained why we must limit total warming to no more than 2 °C.

He sent me a new essay published online with open access in Climatic Change, “How much should the public know about climate science?“  He notes that recent research shows “global emissions of greenhouse gases must peak and decline within the next decade if global warming is to be limited to a level that avoids severe climate disruption” (see figure below).

Given the success of the most effective, immoral, and self-destructive disinformation campaign in US history, scientists need to focus their messaging on a handful of key points.  Somerville offers six:

  1. The essential findings of mainstream climate change science are firm. The world is warming. There are many kinds of evidence: air temperatures, ocean temperatures, melting ice, rising sea levels, and much more. Human activities are the main cause. The warming is not natural. It is not due to the sun, for example.  We know this because we can measure the effect of man-made carbon dioxide and it is much stronger than that of changes in the sun, which we also measure.
  2. The greenhouse effect is well understood. It is as real as gravity. The foundations of the science are more than 150 years old. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps heat. We know carbon dioxide is increasing because we measure it. We know the increase is due to human activities like burning fossil fuels because we can analyze the chemical evidence for that.
  3. Our climate predictions are coming true. Many observed climate changes, like rising sea level, are occurring at the high end of the predicted range. Some observed changes, like melting sea ice, are happening faster than the anticipated worst case.Unless mankind takes strong steps to halt and reverse the rapid global increase of fossil fuel use and the other activities that cause climate change, and does so in a very few years, severe climate change is inevitable. Urgent action is needed if global warming is to be limited to moderate levels.
  4. The standard skeptical arguments have been refuted many times over. The refutations are on many web sites and in many books. For example, the mechanisms causing natural climate change like ice ages are irrelevant to the current warming. We know why ice ages come and go. That is due to changes in the Earth’s orbit around the sun, changes that take thousands of years. The warming that is occurring now, over just a few decades, cannot possibly be caused by such slow-acting processes. But it can be caused by man-made changes in the greenhouse effect.
  5. Science has its own high standards. It does not work by unqualified people making claims on television or the Internet. It works by expert scientists doing research and publishing it in carefully reviewed research journals. Other scientists examine the research and repeat it and extend it. Valid results are confirmed, and wrong ones are exposed and abandoned. Science is self-correcting. People who are not experts, who are not trained and experienced in this field, who do not do research and publish it following standard scientific practice, are not doing science. When they claim that they are the real experts, they are just plain wrong.
  6. The leading scientific organizations of the world, like national academies of science and professional scientific societies, have carefully examined the results of climate science and endorsed these results. It is silly to imagine that thousands of climate scientists worldwide are engaged in a massive conspiracy to fool everybody. It is also silly to think that a few minor errors in the extensive IPCC reports can invalidate the reports. The first thing that the world needs to do to confront the challenge of climate change wisely is to learn about what science has discovered and accept it. The IPCC Fourth Assessment Report at is a good place to start.
The Fourth Assessment is a good place to start, but, as Somerville notes, the science in many aspects has become more dire (see “An illustrated guide to the latest climate science” and The Copenhagen Diagnosis).  For refuting the standard talking points of the anti-science disinformers, I’d recommend starting with Skeptical Science.
Somerville notes:
The CO2 growth rate has increased substantially over the period of record. It was 1.4 ppm per year on average from 1960 to 2005, but 1.9 ppm per year for the decade from 1995 to 2005, the highest recorded for any decade since measurements began…  The observed increasing acidification of the world oceans, which may have profound biological implications, is also a serious consequence of adding CO2 to the atmosphere.
He presents this figure:
Emissions pathways to give a 67% chance of limiting global warming to 2 ◦C above preindustrial temperatures. From: The Copenhagen Diagnosis, Updating the World on the Latest Climate Science ( Originally from German Advisory Council on Climate Change, Solving the Climate Dilemma: The Budget Approach, WBGU, Berlin, 2009. Creative Commons license.
Obviously, the all-too-willing takeover in this country of the conservative movement by the Tea Party makes it exceedingly unlikely we are going to hit one of those pathways (see Why the victory of the Tea Party extremists (backed by Big Oil) over the slightly less extreme GOP establishment (also backed by Big Oil) is good for progressives, but bad for climate and clean energy).  That doesn’t change the urgency of the messaging, but it does require an augmented strategy, which I will discuss post-election.


No comments: