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January 15, 2005

A Response to RealClimate

Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Science Policy: General

In case you missed it Gavin Schmidt, one of the founders of the RealClimate blog, responded thoughtfully to my post "The Uncertainty Trap" where I suggest that their claim to focus on science and not politics "is a noble but futile ambition." He writes in response,

"Let me make one more thing clear: we are not taking a political stand on this [climate debate]. That someone else decides to support their political point by using bogus science is not our fault. If we correct their errors it is because we don't want to see bogus science used at all. It does not necessarily imply that we are taking a stand against their political premise."

Readers of Prometheus will know how much we value the honest broker. And to be sure climate science certainly needs more honest brokers. So RealClimate has great potential to fill a much needed niche. But unless RealClimate carefully considers policy and politics as they go about their business, they run the risk of simply becoming viewed as yet another voice on the internet pushing a political agenda through science, not unlike but with a different slant.

There are a few simple things that RealClimate might do to enhance its role as an honest broker. Here is some unsolicited advice.

1. No free passes.

RealClimate's focus thus far is very much framed in one political direction, e.g., on attacking George Will, Senator James Inhofe, Michael Crichton, McIntyre and McKitrick, Fox News, and Myron Ebell. These criticisms are perfectly justified, but RealClimate shouldn't give a free pass to anyone, especially those whose political agenda they may find more compelling. Here are a few items from the past week that RealClimate might have focused on:

*Worldwatch released its 2005 State of the World report and linked the 2004 Florida hurricane season and typhoons to signs of an "accelerated global warming." There is no scientific basis for making this linkage.

*An AP story linked a spell of warm winter weather in Russia to global warming. Perhaps such a linkage exists, but I'd be surprised if there was a scientific basis for making such a claim.

Excesses abound in the climate debate on all sides. Don't ignore this fact.

2. Be transparent.

Some RealClimate contributors have in other venues openly presented their political and policy commitments on climate change. In some cases these commitments are very strongly held. When such commitments have been made, RealClimate readers will be better served by being open about them. The bios on the site might simply present such information. Don't hide behind science.

3. Diversify.

The blog will be viewed as more legitimate and authoritative as an honest if the set of scientific contributors is comprised so as to have a diversity of political perspectives represented. If everyone who contributes shares a similar perspective, it can be more difficult for the participants to see the biases that result. In addition, it is important to be careful about moderating the posts to ReaClimate. If a diversity of perspectives is allowed to express their views then it will enhance the credibility of the site. This also means allowing legitimate scientists with different points of view to respond to your posts on topics that remain under debate in the scientific literature. Gatekeeping is another means that unstated biases can be reflected.

4. Distinguish policy and politics.

If RealClimate wants to avoid being labeled an advocacy site then rather than pretending to be disconnected from politics it might consider openly discussing policy issues. For example, questions related to policy, but which are apolitical, that might be addressed include:

What effect might emissions reductions of various sizes have on arctic ice cover?

What effect might emissions reductions of various sizes have on sea level rise?

What are the implications of the IPCC and FCCC using different definitions of "climate change"?

The honest broker's role will be better served by working to expand the scope of policy options available for discussion. Everything posted on RealClimate has implications for policy and politics, when not openly confront this reality?

Finally, it is important to understand that there is a large body of scholarship that shows that efforts to focus only on "the science" actually exacerbate the politicization of science. Any scientists claiming to focus on "scientific topics and not get involved in any political or economic implications of the science" should read and carefully think about the following two papers by Daniel Sarewitz:

How science makes environmental controversies worse

Science and Environmental Policy: An Excess of Objectivity

Here at Prometheus we wish the RealClimate folks well, it is a great experiment in honest brokering.

Posted on January 15, 2005 11:36 AM


Thanks for your good wishes.

1 Fair point. Have you commented on the likes of Singer?
2. Needs expansion/examples: too vague to be meaningful.
3. We welcome guest editorials. Exactly who from, we don't yet know.
4. Science/Science/None.

Regards, William

Posted by: William M. Connolley at January 16, 2005 04:48 AM


Thanks much for your comments. Some replies:

1. Have a look at, for example:

And of course there are few secrets about our perspectives on the climate issue. See, for example,

2. Have a look at, for example:

3. Good.

4. For a different perspective on the scientific significance of third point, see this article:

Thanks for the exchange!

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. at January 16, 2005 09:18 AM

1. Well... I did mean Singer, specifically "shadow boxing" when you appear to suggest that S supports the consensus. But thats not plausible.

2. 1&2 are rather weak. 4 is in German so I won't comment. 3 is quite strong, true, but it *is* in Nature so maybe we assume everyone has read it (not that I had).

4. I knew of the clash, but I've never worried about it, since I take the IPCC line. I'm pleased to see that you come down on their side, but I'm not convinced it matters, from a scientific viewpoint.

Having said all that, your comments are worth thinking over, and I will. is me starting to.

Posted by: William M. Connolley at January 16, 2005 02:28 PM

I think part of the problem is that scientists don't want to admit that general complex systems are part of the philosphy and methodology of science, because it's hard to come to analytic predictions. Scientists should explicitly grab the issue of general systems by the horns, and stop being argued into a rhetorical trap. Funnily enough, economics (another general system) has a subject-matter that is prescriptively less-determined than the climate, and it would naturally rise to the challenge of working within almost any climate policy.

There are two problems: the public doesn't understand the nature of complex systems, and on the other hand, the public believes that economic theory prescribes a single unerring avenue to growth. (There is also a third problem, which is that greed predominates in our politics.)

Perhaps concern over "uncertainty" in complex, adaptive, open systems should be investigated by inductive generalization from observations of the dynamics of a wide range of such systems: ecosystems, social systems, computer systems, immune systems, economic systems... It is curious that the following things are never admitted as "facts about the world," but here goes: the observer would note of all of these systems that they undergo oscillations within apparent parameters and occasionally flip into new regimes; they often demonstrate novel emergence; and that increased forcing, whether of native elements or exotic ones, increases the rates of oscillation and catastrophic shifts, sometimes after a quieter period of sub-threshold build-up. The observer would also see that these events are not tractable to analytic prediction beforehand, due to any or several of various regular functions: including definition, modeling, measurement, calculation, experiment control, and repeated verification. Yet it will remain a fact that, even though you can't predict any exact occurrence or its timing, all complex systems will show these general dynamics.

At that point, we opt for the Precautionary Principle, as your grandma already knew.

The economic system is in for the same treatment: it is a complex system, with all the attributes. Statements about its trajectory are contingent and provisional. But still, the climate is a slightly more determinative system, because its linkages are of physics and chemistry, while economics is far less determinative and much more resilient: economic growth may continue along a variety of different avenues, because the system also includes creativity and motives. It is a curious defect of mentality that economic predictions of experts are held to be sacrosanct--by the same crowd that dumps on the climate scientists! But surely economics is far less determinative. Surely our economic system will rise to the challenge of working in almost any climate policy.

Indeed, the climate debate is not exactly a "conflict over values," unless one of them is "greed." It has been registered time and again that, aside from a few serious climate scientists who make useful points in the real debate, all of the anti-warming people are paid industry hacks.

The idea that "economics trumps climate" should be exactly reversed, on our best and most comprehensive understanding of the processes involved. The human race will do just fine, although some people may have to find another job.

Posted by: Lee A. Arnold at January 17, 2005 12:45 PM

Lee Arnold:  Hear, hear!

One point I don't see anyone making is that human energy consumption is so large, we are already moving about as much carbon every two years as the biosphere cycles in one.  If we stipulate that climate trumps economics, and allow that economics is limited only by engineering which is limited largely by physics which is nowhere near its limits in the area of renewable energy... if we shifted our incentives appropriately we could soon be in the position of being able to reconstitute coal seams out of graphite if it suited our needs to do so.

Most people look at climactic variations and say, "Why?"  I look at the prospect of engineering the climate to suit the way we want to live, and say "Why not?"

Posted by: Engineer-Poet at January 19, 2005 11:07 PM

Lee Arnold, I enjoyed very, very much what you wrote.
I think you described brilliantly "The Problem", Real climatic systems are so complex we will never know how they behave, maybe partly because we will never know enough physics and chemistry. Thousands or maybe millions of factors are involved. This is not kind of "ideal gases" problems, or driving a car.. As you suggest, marginal parameters, unrecognized, can force events in an completely unpredicted way. That is what has happened always... That is why "Futurists" fail, they only take in account what seems to be evident!
The inductive generalization from observation is absolutely a must, but, again, we will never know how big is the iceberg.

Fortunately, not all scientists are narrow minded .

It could seem strange, but it is not... so many specialists, who overwhelm us with their knowledge, but it results they are not smarter than other people who have not devoted so many years studying such complicated subjects, and at the end, maybe understand a lot more that can be expressed.

Agree 100% with Precautionary Principle.
Dear Engineer-poet.. it is not so easy. We are billions on Earth.. And donīt forget the Invisible Services the Nature gives us. We are killing our Mother. I am saying this as Scientist, although I also love Poetry
Are you Bioneer?

Posted by: O. Linde at January 21, 2005 06:28 PM

O. Linde writes:

     it is not so easy. We are billions on Earth.

Paradoxically, this makes it easier.  Currently, most energy-using human activities pump carbon into the atmosphere as documented by the Keeling curve.  Suppose instead that we went beyond the need to dig up carbon for our energy, and instead used carbon mostly as a carrier of energy, capturing it from sources such as lawn clippings and crop wastes and cycling it without releasing it.  Suppose further that the excess of input over losses was disposed according to policy decisions, such as reduction to carbon black and burial.  Would it "kill our mother" to return the atmosphere to the conditions prevailing in, say, 1950?  Ironically, the more of us who participate in a hydrogen economy (or the equivalent) and contribute to carbon sequestration, the more rapidly and easily such a goal could be accomplished.

(Who decided that HTML in coments should be forbidden and that any alternate codes should be undocumented?  That's just plain rude.)

Posted by: Engineer-Poet at January 23, 2005 08:59 PM

There is often much discussion of who funds who in the climate debate. (Perhaps too much talk.) Is the source of RealClimate's funding an issue?

Posted by: Jonathan Adler at January 24, 2005 06:39 AM

Unfortunately, William Connelley may applaud Roger's appeal, but still apply crude censorship to opposing views, especially after making ridiculous comments. Nor is Connelley an aberration, since Michael Mann himself is not above the crude censorship of scientific papers of which his behavior with the editor of Geophysical Research Letters, is but a recent example.

We should not forget why realclimate exists. It exists because Michael Mann's work, which forms the leading opinion of the IPCC TAR 2001, has been shown to be shoddy and full of holes. The point of realclimate is to defend Michael Mann. Without the pioneering work of McIntyre and McKitrick, realclimate would never have existed.

On, Steve has listed out in great detail why MBH98 and MBH99 are fatally flawed. He has avoided the rhetoric of realclimate and instead focussed on public scrutiny of climate studies, that would have never been published had the studies been prospectuses for financial investment, for example.

Nor is Steve's work the only example. More and more researchers are looking at Mann's work and asking why this study ever attained the status it has.

Realclimate is not, and never has been, a weblog about science. It is an advocacy site for a political viewpoint. It is the natural outgrowth of Stephen Schneider's advocacy that scientists should shade the truth in order to make the world "a better place".

If realclimate wants to become a scientific resource, then it should stop trying to censor opposing views and stop pretending that it's real purpose is to defend Michael Mann from the entirely justified criticism that he hides behind the weblog and friendly news media outlets to forstall full disclosure of his data and methodology.

There are those of us who regard a weblog created by climate modellers being called "realclimate" to be unintentionally hilarious.

Posted by: John A at March 6, 2005 04:14 AM

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