Thursday, August 30, 2012

Activate (?) your science

Climate Etc.
Judith Curry

We need bold science and bold action.   There is a vital role for governments to play, but equally importantly is the role of academia, civil society, and industry.  Harnessing that collective commitment is underway – but it remains to be seen if changes will be rapid and substantial enough. Her Excellency noted in her powerful opening remarks that there is a significant gap between the accelerating pace of degradation and the rate of effective response.
Each of you here can influence the rate of response by activating your science.  - Jane Lubchenco, NOAA Administrator

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco gave the keynote presentation at the recent   International Coral Reef Symposium in Cairns, Australia.   The text of the speech is found here.  Some excerpts:

Scientists – YOU and I ! –  with our knowledge of the threats, consequences, and likelihood success of options for solutions, have a particular responsibility to share our findings broadly, develop useful and useable decision-support tools, team up with local communities and industry partners, and help craft practical solutions.

Your knowledge and your passion are sorely needed.  But your knowledge must be shared in ways that are understandable, credible and relevant to decision-making at multiple levels.  Learning to become bilingual – to speak both the language of science and the language of lay people is a skill more scientists need to learn.  You’ve all heard the phrase ‘learn by doing’?  The same applies to teaching: ‘teach by doing…not by preaching.’

This is, in fact, happening in many parts of the world. Scientists, communities, NGOs, industry and governments are collaborating to develop management solutions that provide for immediate local needs and enable healthy, resilient reefs. These are powerful, hopeful signs, they are simply not at the scale commensurate with the threats.

This is a story of leadership, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary partnerships across many types of partners, peer learning, and science to develop and implement creative solutions that address food security in the face of climate change and ocean acidification.

The world, its coral reefs and the millions of people that depend upon them need more bold action – action that is science-and ecosystem-based,action that is embraced locally and nationally, action that values tomorrow as well as today. And we need bold science – science that is use-inspired: i. e., it is cutting-edge but relevant and focused on solutions. 

Each of you here can influence the rate of response by activating your science.

I invite you to do more than create new knowledge.  Share it! Put it to use with partners and a sustained engagement.

In short, activate your science.

Donna LaFramboise doesn’t like what Lubchenco had to say:

In Lubchenco’s universe there is apparently no danger of scientists going overboard, of unconsciously biasing their research. She seems to think that earning a scientific degree somehow transforms individuals into infallible beings who will never fall victim to self-delusion, whose judgment will always be impeccable.

The latest issue of Nature Climate Change has an article by Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows entitled A new paradigm for climate change that make similar points:

How climate change science is conducted, communicated and translated into policy must be radically transformed if ‘dangerous’ climate change is to be averted.

We urgently need to acknowledge that the development needs of many countries leave the rich western nations with little choice but to immediately and severely curb their greenhouse gas emissions. But academics may again have contributed to a misguided belief that commitments to avoid warming of 2 °C can still be realized with incremental adjustments to economic incentives. A carbon tax here, a little emissions trading there and the odd voluntary agreement thrown in for good measure will not be sufficient.

Scientists may argue that it is not our responsibility anyway and that it is politicians who are really to blame. The scientific community can meet next year to communicate its latest model results and reiterate how climate change commitments and economic growth go hand in hand. Many policymakers (and some scientists) believe that yet another year will not matter in the grand scheme of things, but this overlooks the fundamental tenet of climate science: emissions are cumulative.

There are many reasons why climate science has become intertwined with politics, to the extent that providing impartial scientific analysis is increasingly challenging and challenged. On a personal level, scientists are human too. Many have chosen to research climate change because they believe there is value in applying scientific rigour to an important global issue. It is not surprising then that they also hope that it is still possible to avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. However, as the remaining cumulative budget is consumed, so any contextual interpretation of the science demonstrates that the threshold of 2 °C is no longer viable, at least within orthodox political and economic constraints. Against this backdrop, unsubstantiated hope leaves such constraints unquestioned, while at the same time legitimizing a focus on increasingly improbable low- carbon futures and underplaying high- emission scenarios.

On a professional level, scientists are seldom trained to engage with policymaking; where opinions are encouraged and decisions informed as much by ideology as by judgement of the science, economics and so on. Policymaking is necessarily a messy process. Scientists, however, often assume that the most effective way of engaging is by presenting evidence, without daring to venture, at least explicitly, broader academic judgement. Perhaps, for narrowly defined disciplinary study, this is entirely appropriate. Yet many highly respected researchers are emerging with interdisciplinary expertise. Academic training has begun to foster the ability of researchers to embed quantitative analysis within a wider sociopolitical and economic context. Nevertheless, reluctance to proffer academic judgement confidently remains, particularly when such judgement raises fundamental questions about the viability of so-called real-world economics.

Reinforcing the view that we may be on the cusp of a paradigm shift are the fundamental disagreements between orthodox economists as to how to respond to the crisis. This theoretical disarray has parallels with those rare occasions in history where established knowledge is superseded by new ways of thinking and understanding. Newton, Darwin, Einstein and Planck all represent such radical transitions. They are seldom achieved easily and the old guard typically hangs on kicking furiously to avoid relinquishing its grip on power. Ultimately, however, such protestations are futile in the face of the new insights and new ways of doing things that emerge with the new paradigm.

It is in this rapidly evolving context that the science underpinning climate change is being conducted and its findings communicated. This is an opportunity that should and must be grasped. Liberate the science from the economics, finance and astrology, stand by the conclusions however uncomfortable. But this is still not enough. In an increasingly interconnected world where the whole — the system — is often far removed from the sum of its parts, we need to be less afraid of making academic judgements. Not unsubstantiated opinions and prejudice, but applying a mix of academic rigour, courage and humility to bring new and interdisciplinary insights into the emerging era. Leave the market economists to fight among themselves over the right price of carbon — let them relive their groundhog day if they wish. The world is moving on and we need to have the audacity to think differently and conceive of alternative futures.

Civil society needs scientists to do science free of the constraints of failed economics. It also needs us to guard against playing politics while actively engaging with the processes of developing policy; this is a nuanced but nonetheless crucial distinction. Ultimately, decisions on how to respond to climate change are the product of many constituencies contributing to the debate. Science is important among these and needs to be communicated clearly, honestly and without fear.

JC comment:  The above text clearly illustrates the postnormal environment that climate science is operating in.  I can certainly understand why policy makers and advocacy groups want scientists to get involved, so that they can trade on the authority of scientists in their policy making.

The dangers that this presents for the integrity of science are increasingly being realized.    The recent statement on Climate Change by the American Meteorological Society is a case in point.  Subsequent to my post on this topic, I engaged in email exchanges and a phone conversation with Keith Seitter, Executive Director of the AMS.  He assured me that the committee that wrote the statement included numerous participants in the IPCC, and that the Council was actively engaged in the statement preparation process.  There is a  large cadre of climate scientists that have become ‘stealth advocates’ (Pielke Jr’s term) for climate change policies, who think the consensus on climate change science logically demands a specific policy direction (reduction of atmospheric CO2).

And then there is a new breed of academics that are working at the interface of (physical) climate science and social science, trained in the paradigm of environmental studies.  These academics have some understanding of the science of climate change.  They mostly use the IPCC conclusions (imbuing them with even higher confidence than provided by the IPCC) as a starting point for their (policy, economic, sociological, psychological, political) analysis.  As a result, their studies often get caught up in circular reasoning, such as the paper by Anderson and Bows. I find their arguments particularly peculiar in arguing that climate scientists and those working at the boundaries of climate science should dismiss economics.

And all of this feeds back onto climate science in a very disturbing way.  So what is needed to preserve the integrity of climate science in this postnormal environment?  Here is my take:

1)  Climate scientists: DE-activate your science.  Continually challenge your science, with the knowledge that such challenges become more difficult in this politicized post normal science.

2) Climate scientists (and all physical scientists) IMO need better understanding of the philosophy, history, and social psychology of science.  While they rarely comment, I am aware that a substantial number of climate and related scientists read this blog.  I consider my main service to this community to be introducing them to relevant literature in these areas.

3)  For those scientists desiring to engage in the policy process, educate yourself (or take university courses) on the policy process.  Reading Roger Pielke’s book Honest Broker is a good starting point.  Beware of becoming and advocate, and understand the risk that this poses to your personal reputation and to the science itself.

4)  Communication of science is an important issue.  Good communication helps the public understanding of how nature and science itself works.  However, the emphasis in climate communication seems not to aspire to emulate the great communicators of science (e.g. Richard Feynman), but rather to become more effective at using rhetoric in the service of propaganda to support policies to curb CO2 emissions and to figure out how to marginalize ‘deniers.’

Administrators of government agencies, professional societies, and even some universities are actively encouraging ‘activation’.  This needs to be looked at closely in terms of protecting the integrity of science.

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