Will Progress in Climatology Affect Mitigation Policy?

Will progress in climatology affect mitigation policy? Not very much, no.

“Steven Chu, the new secretary of energy, said Wednesday that solving the world’s energy and environment problems would require Nobel-level breakthroughs in three areas: electric batteries, solar power and the development of new crops that can be turned into fuel.”

according to a recent article in the New York Times.

Note what he doesn’t mention: supercomputing, climate modeling, earth system modeling frameworks. Dr. Chu is putting his attention in the right places.

It can be argued that climatology is not an important input into climate change related policy. It is premature to take climatological input into account in adaptation strategy, while on the other hand as far as mitigation goes (i.e., on the global scale) the picture has pretty much stayed about the same for some substantial time.

Many readers will find this peculiar. Certain sorts of denialists are arguing that the tide has turned against the IPCC consensus over the last couple of years. With regard to that, nothing has changed; they have been making similar statements for twenty years. Certain sorts of alarmists meanwhile are emphasizing how things have gotten so much worse, but again these sorts of claims are nothing new. The fact is that things are pretty much about as bad as we have thought for a long time, except on the sea level rise front, where relatively new insights into ice sheet dynamics and new data about sudden postglacial sea level rise in the past raise the possibility of rapid changes in sea level.

It’s not outside the realm of possibility that ice sheet modeling will make sufficient progress to constrain the behavior of ice sheets effectively. It is certainly worth a try.

On the other hand, consider this. Carefully targeted expenditures on science can be effective, but you cannot hire nine women to make a baby in a month. Intellectual progress can reach some maximum rate but then it reaches a point where more manpower and more funding is just redundant.

Some problems in earth science are undecidable. We may never understand the ocean circulation of the Eocene, much though we might want to.

My guess is that the most likely outcome is that there will be several viable scenarios for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet until one of them occurs. Maybe Greenland will turn out to be a tad less capricious, but we don’t know that for sure yet either.

As for aerosols, (and as for clouds, and so on) yes improvements can perhaps narrow the uncertainty of climate prediction a bit, and I’m happy to be helping out in that regard, but the chances of the first order picture changing very much are slim.

The real issues are environmental, agricultural and civil engineering problems, and the response issues are in the social, political, economic and geopolitical realms.

Climatology is a worthy pursuit in itself as a pure science. As far as application goes, if geoengineering is necessary you will need to rely on huge advancement in the field. Possibly we can improve our abilities for local and regional predictions, which would add a lot of value to adaptation startegies. So by all means support climatology, but don’t look to us for input into what needs doing now on the mitigation front.

We have said our piece and it is unlikely to change, not because we are stubborn, but because there are some things we understand pretty well. And certainly not because we are in it for the gold. The big money is not heading our way, nor should it.

PS from the same article:

Dr. Chu said he was still adjusting to his surroundings and title after most of a career spent as an academic scientist. Asked whether he preferred to be called “Dr. Chu” or “Mr. Secretary,” he answered, “Steve is fine.”

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We Need a New form of Outreach

American Thinker has a particularly compelling and polished version of the usual vile garbage, put together in what starts to look like a coherent argument. Of course it is built on the usual foundation of overvalued nitpicking:

“We can’t even believe in “official” measurements, as data sets relied upon to track global temperatures have again been shown to be contaminated and otherwise compromised.”

misdirection:

“Remember the sea ice that doomsters warned would soon be gone? It’s now at the very same level it was in 1979.”

and outright lies:

“this IPCC report, much-hyped-and-hallowed by alarmists and media-drones alike, represents the combined work of only 52 carefully cherry-picked UN scientists”

Unfortunately, amidst all this garbage they score a legitimate political point here. The public’s confidence in the scientific consensus as somewhat understated in the IPCC reports is, by various measures getting worse. That part of the article is not lies.
Although Obama is closely enough connected to the scientific community that he understands the tragic dynamic behind this situation, and although he has a lot of power, he is probably not going to make much of a dent in this situation anytime soon. Yes, green jobs will help, and it does help that people see peak oil as real. The alliance between fossil fuel (especially coal) people and an especially malicious and divisive streak among market fundamentalists goes on. They are not going to make our lives any easier, and so the sort of unmitigated nastiness seen in the American Thinker article is not going away or even abating. Worse, as it triumphantly crows, it is succeeding.
We need to reinvent the relationship between science and the public. That is an absolutely crucial step and it needs to happen fast. This is outside the capacity of NSF, which likes to support what it calls outreach but does so in a structurally ineffective way.

New mechanisms for communication between science and the public are desperately needed.
Dr. Chu? Dr. Holdren? Hello?
Update: Churlish of me to complain on a day when Obama takes such strong positive steps. For which I am grateful; I wasn’t aware this was coming.
And what do you expect of a country where people don’t “believe in” evolution anyway? Still I hate to see these polls headed south and I think it’s an important long-term goal to reconnect (or at least connect) science and society.

Update 1/28: Some related points on a comment by Gavin Starks on Tim O’Reilly’s “Radar” site:

We’re all aware of the emotive language used to polarize the climate change debate.

There are, however, deeper patterns which are repeated across science as it interfaces with politics and media. These patterns have always bothered me, but they’ve never been as “important” as now.

We are entering an new era of seismic change in policy, business, society, technology, finance and our environment, on a scale and speed substantially greater than previous revolutions. The sheer complexity of these interweaving systems is staggering.

Much of this change is being driven by “climate science”, and in the communications maelstrom there is a real risk that we further alienate “science” across the board.

We need more scientists with good media training (and presenting capability) to change the way that all sciences are represented and perceived. We need more journalists with deeper science training – and the time and space to actually communicate across all media. We need to present uncertainty clearly, confidently and in a way that doesn’t impede our decision-making.

On the climate issue, there are some impossible levers to contend with;

  1. Introducing any doubt into the climate debate stops any action that might combat our human impact.
  2. Introducing “certainty” undermines our scientific method and its philosophy.

When represented in political, public and media spaces, these two levers undermine every scientific debate and lead to bad decisions.

A tough nut, indeed.