World leaders pretend

Apparently the American Geophysical Union’s readiness to speak out on climate change which I reported in a recent post was not as the LA Times portrayed it.  Joseph Romm has written of his disappointment that the AGU is constrained by a determination to veer away from anything that could be construed as advocacy. They state that the email exchange forum they have set up for journalists is designed to answer questions about the current state of scientific knowledge, with a special emphasis on the physical sciences that relate to climate change. Non-science questions such as those relating to policy, ethics, or economics will be returned to sender for refinement.

One example they provide is the question, “Is current U.S. infrastructure adequate for sea level rise?”  Such a question will be returned to sender on the grounds that judgments of adequacy involve tradeoffs in risk and in policy. The scientists will only answer the question if it is changed to “What amount of sea level rise might occur this century?”

It’s a stark contrast with climatologist  James Hansen, who recently delivered an open lecture in Japan on the occasion of his being awarded the prestigious Blue Planet Prize. The text and powerpoint charts can be accessed on his website. He doesn’t hold back. Here are the opening words:


“Human-made climate change is a moral issue. It pits the rich and the powerful against the young and the unborn, against the defenseless and against nature.

“Climate change is a political issue. But politics fails when there is a revolving door between government and the fossil fuel-industrial complex.

“Climate change is a legal issue. The judiciary provides the possibility of holding our governments accountable for their duty to protect the public interest.”

The accompanying slide has a footnote that statements relating to policy are personal opinion.

Of course Hansen then proceeds with the science of climate change, explaining the current position with his usual clarity.

“It is difficult for the public to recognize that we have a crisis, because human-made global warming, so far, is small compared to day-to-day weather fluctuations. Yet the fact is: we have an emergency. Because of the great inertia of the ocean, which is four kilometers deep, and the ice sheets, which are two to three kilometers thick, the climate system responds slowly to climate forcings such as increasing greenhouse gases. But this inertia is not our friend, because it increases the danger that we may pass tipping points, beyond which the dynamics of the climate system takes over and rapid changes occur out of humanity’s control.”

He offers three examples of tipping points. The ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, especially the West Antarctic ice sheet, are one. If an ice sheet is weakened to the point that it begins to collapse then the dynamics of the process take over. Another non-linear problem is the extermination of species which can accelerate because of the interdependencies among species. A third is methane hydrates, essentially frozen methane. If they begin to disintegrate the process could become self-sustaining. He notes these tipping points have all occurred during Earth’s history in conjunction with warming climates.

At this point in his lecture he again crosses into the kind of territory that the AGU eschews for its scientists.

“Climate inertia and tipping points give rise to potential intergenerational injustice. Today’s adults enjoy the benefits of fossil fuel use, but the impacts will be borne by young people and future generations. Our parents did not know that their actions would affect future generations. We do not have that excuse. We can only feign ignorance. It is called denial.”

There was a lengthy period following Hansen’s testifying to Congress in the 1980s during which he decided to concentrate on research and leave public communication to others. He tells how  it was the arrival of his grandchildren combined with the growing gap between what was understood of the science and what was known by the public that brought him back to public communication. In 2004 he gave a carefully prepared public talk titled “Dangerous anthropogenic interference: a discussion of humanity’s Faustian climate bargain and the payments coming due”.

His public lecture in Japan is the latest example of his readiness to couple the communication of the science with clear assessment of the risk and with concrete recommendations as to how that risk may yet be avoided.  As his lecture proceeds he explains the basis of our current scientific understanding. It depends most of all on Earth’s paleoclimate history, then on ongoing global observations showing how climate is responding to rapid changes of atmospheric composition, and finally on climate models and theory which are helpful in interpreting what is happening and needed to predict future changes. There’s a pile of interesting material which follows which I won’t try to summarise here, save to say that he points out that the human-caused rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide is occurring at a rate 10,000 times faster than the natural geologic change of the Cenozoic era of the past 65 million years. He also explains his assessment that a level of no more than 350ppm of atmospheric carbon dioxide is required if we wish to preserve the planet on which civilisation developed.

He’s not backward in spelling out policy implications. We must halt all coal emissions in 20 years, not develop tar sands, oil shale or methane hydrates, and not pursue the last drops of oil in polar regions, deep sea drilling or pristine land. “In other words, we must move on to the clean energy future now, rather than using all the remaining fossil fuels.”

There’s as yet no sign of our doing so:

“But what is really happening? The United States has signed an agreement with Canada for a pipeline to carry tar sands oil to Texas. New coal plants are being built all around the world, some being financed by the World Bank. Environmentally destructive mountaintop removal continues. Oil is pursued in pristine places. The environmentally destructive practice of shale fracturing is being developed and implemented to find the last bits of gas.

“There is a huge gap between government rhetoric and policy reality. Leaders say that we have a ‘planet in peril’, yet their proposed policies barely differ from business-as-usual. Greenwash is plentiful, but the leaders follow a path of appeasement of fossil fuel special interests. There is no Winston Churchill willing to stand up and tell the truth about what is needed.”

Hansen then moves to his policy prescriptions which include a rising price on carbon, government regulation, and technology development driven by the certainty of the carbon price. He is not diffident in offering them, but his audience would have no difficulty recognising when he has moved from presentation of the science to advocacy of a particular response.

The notion that a scientist’s responsibility ends where a politician’s begins is simplistic. Politicians often enough show little sign of fully appreciating the reality of the science, and even if they do they appear to have an endless capacity to shy away from appropriate action. Are scientists like Hansen supposed to stay in their sanctums and be satisfied with issuing bulletins on the state of the science? And when they see the mayhem created by industry denial and media confusion and political timidity are they supposed to just shrug their shoulders and get on with their research? Even though they know what that research indicates for the human future if we carry on as usual?

Hansen’s record makes it quite clear that advocacy doesn’t mean compromising research. His scientific work continues and wins respect in its own right. Joe Romm has  reason to be disappointed that the AGU has put such stringent limits on its scientists’ communication with journalists.


20 thoughts on “World leaders pretend”

  1. I commend the AGU for the stance they have taken. The example they give is not perhaps the greatest one, but the principle of only commenting where you have expertise is sound and it is strange that Bryan would criticise it.

    An expert on atmospheric response to a change in CO2 can tell us what temperature and rain fall change to expect, but not what impact this will have on agriculture. An expert on agriculture can take the forecasted change and explain what the impact on agriculture will be, but not the cost and benefit of mitigation. An economist can take the forecasted impact and assess the costs and benefits of mitigation. A politician then needs to take all the analysis and judge the morality of mitigation.

    Why you would ask an atmospheric scientist the best way to design an ETS or reduce emissions is a mystery. The scientific info for a policy maker is fairly simple; these emissions will have this impact and this cost. Once that conclusion is reached it is no longer an issue for atmospheric scientists.

    1. What say you address the second and third questions in my penultimate paragraph? If the economists and politicians were showing real signs of taking on board the seriousness of the situation I’ve no doubt Hansen and others like him would be happy to cheer them on.But your orderly picture bears no relationship to what is actually happening.

    2. sounds like a pretty simple process R2. Is that the way the world is for you? Simple and compartmentalised?

      I think your comment shows the basic problem with the idea that scientists should stick to what they know and leave the politics to politicians. If the politicians don’t have the necessary understanding of the science then they are inclined to give the wrong weighting to what the scientists are saying. If vested interests come into play they are likely to distort the process of determining the “morality of mitigation” (whatever you want that to mean).

      “The scientific info for a policy maker is fairly simple; these emissions will have this impact and this cost.”
      um, yeah. you really don’t get it, do you?

    3. Your neat row of cookie jars sounds feasible, R2, but what do we do if the Politicians completely ignore the analysis and the criminally avaricious persist in spreading lies and distortions on the subject? Walk away with an ‘oh well, never mind, we did what we could….’

      Not when my grandchildren and their grandchildren are at stake, Sunshine!!!

      1. I don’t think you understand. “What do we do if the Politicians completely ignore the analysis”. Same thing you do with any issue, if you completely disagreed with say, the rules on gay rights, you would write your politician, march in the streets, lobby your fellow citizens, etc. You are free to do the same with climate science. But if you are an atmospheric scientist and someone asks you for an expert opinion on whether New Zealand’s target should be 5% or 40% you say “thats an issue for policy makers and negotiators to decide, but what I can say is if emissions continue at business at usual rates I expect temperatures to increase by x degrees, and that in order to keep them below y degrees from current levels we need to cut by z % by 20xx”.

        1. For once I am in agreement with R2 on this. The scientists don’t need to or shouldn’t get to involved in policy, that job is fairly well covered by the IPCC. What they need to be doing is cracking down on the clowns who distort the science. Become more proactive where media get stuff wrong or twist the truth and generally become more visible to the public. They need to get out more and defend the science they produce instead of just leaving it to blogs like Hot Topic.

        2. “you would write your politician, march in the streets, lobby your fellow citizens”

          so we can do this but scientists should not because of their jobs? are scientists not citizens? my writing an open letter to Nick Smith is permissible but a scientist with a much better understanding of the issues should just STFU and do their job and leave the politicking to those who know how to do it properly?

          the main problem with your prescription here is that it is patently not working because the politicians are not doing their part. governments around the world are failing to take suitable action in the face of very very strong scientific evidence.

            1. I don’t consider that trolling. he’s arguing his case. it’s a weak argument, but he’s entitled to do his best.
              do you want everyone to shut up who isn’t saying what you want them to say?

            2. Thanks NommoPilot and Laurence. I find this blog interesting so read it. I like to comment where I disagree with what is being written. Or feel I can add to it. Sometimes I probably get a little carried away. However sometimes it feels like any disagreement that I show is shouted down regardless of merit. Your comments on this thread help me to believe that a middle ground is still possible and can be reached with other commenter’s on this site. Hope the discussions can remain positive.

              NommoPilot, I take your point that arguably what I said is what Hansen is doing here. He is a free citizen so free to present his view of the science and plead for public support for action etc. That is a good point.

              I guess the AGU and Hansen are in different positions and perhaps the blog post doesn’t recognise this? The AGU being a science organisation is doing the right thing in keeping the opinions it gives to science. Hansen, being an individual, should not be criticised for taking an advocacy position.

            3. There are genuine trolls on this site – the kind who think it’s some kind of devastating critique to describe all warmists as ‘nut jobs’ in their opening sentence and then ramble all over the place with the cut-and-paste memes du jour. Their ‘contributions’ are both pathological and pointless.

              R2 and I don’t agree on much, but R2 is not one of these. There is a point in arguing with the positions that R2 takes, and dealing with them well helps strengthen our own case.

  2. James Hansen did a brilliant lecture at Southampton University in which he explained the basic theories of global warming. He is not a natural speaker but once he gets into his stride it is very clear.
    I trust him in his explanations and he is most probably right that 350ppm of CO2 is the maximum we should have to maintain our current life style.

  3. Signs of Change conference running now in Wellington, Dunedin, Christchurch, Auckland.

    Kennedy Graham of the Greens stated in his address this morning that the Green party policy is no more coal/lignite out of the ground. They have been discussing the issue with Solid Energy’s CEO Don Elder. They arent so sure about a similar moratorium on new oil right now. But its a good start that a significant political party would take that approach.

    A proposed way of thinking about the future is here.

    Its written by an engineer if you are wondering. I kinda like it.

    1. “Green party policy is no more coal/lignite out of the ground” despite the fact that NZ is spending $1B/ month more than we earn, and China is crying out for coal.

      1. There’s more than one way to deal with our trade deficit, Steve. When a household is in debt the best way out is to spend less. Some would say it’s better to increase income, but experience shows that people tend to live beyond their income no matter how high it is.

        When an economy is based on people spending and spending more, there is something unhealthy that needs to be addressed. I recommend “I.O.U.” by John Lanchester for anyone who wants to find out how sick the world economy is.

  4. I applaud Hansen for taking a stance on these issues, and for differentiating clearly when he’s giving a personal opinion vs when he’s talking science. (e.g. )

    However, by nature of it being a personal opinion, I think it’s correct that the AGU doesn’t reply to questions that relate to what *should* be done.

    A personal opinion should be voiced by a person or a a collection of persons who all subscirbe to that opinion. Within the AGU that is not necessarily the case.

    1. But if they want reporters to continue going to them for advice or information, they can do what the superior department stores do. Have a list of reliable sources outside their own organisation for items they are unable to supply themselves.

  5. The World energy outlook 2010 by IEA covering the period to 2035 says it all: business as usual with lip service to CO2 reductions while annual emissions are set to reach 35 G/y in 2035 – a 21% increase from 2008 levels and CO2 levels to be on track to rise to 650ppm with temp changes of up to 3.5 Deg in store (that’s unless the more tentative but quite probable feedbacks are tripped setting us up to a devastating course well beyond these levels).
    The IEA outlook is here:
    Its worth a read as it predicts what will happen in the current “lets muddle on as we were….” stance of politics.
    It is a red flag for us all and gives ammunition to the argument that a much stronger political campaign is required to change the disastrous course we are on.
    The report also states that the failure at Copenhagen to agree to definitive actions is costing us dearly already (1$ T) as mitigation costs later are much more expensive than early mitigation of climate change.

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