The tension between science and alarmism

Early last month, at about the time of the publication of the Stern Review with its inclusion of “catastrophe” in its analysis of the risks of global warming, Mike Hulme, Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, warned that things were getting out of hand:

I have found myself increasingly chastised by climate change campaigners when my public statements and lectures on climate change have not satisfied their thirst for environmental drama and exaggerated rhetoric.

It seems that it is we, the professional climate scientists, who are now the (catastrophe) sceptics. How the wheel turns.

He concluded:

I believe climate change is real, must be faced and action taken. But the discourse of catastrophe is in danger of tipping society onto a negative, depressive and reactionary trajectory.

Now Kevin Vranes of the Prometheus blog reports from the American Geophysical Union conference that there is a growing tension between climate scientists and those who use climate science to spread alarmism:

What I see is something that I am having a hard time labeling, but that I might call either a “hangover” or a “sophomore slump” or “buyers remorse.” None fit perfectly, but perhaps the combination does. I speak for (my interpretation) of the collective: {We tried for years — decades — to get them to listen to us about climate change. To do that we had to ramp up our rhetoric. We had to figure out ways to tone down our natural skepticism (we are scientists, after all) in order to put on a united face. We knew it would mean pushing the science harder than it should be. We knew it would mean allowing the boundary-pushers on the “it’s happening” side free reign while stifling the boundary-pushers on the other side. But knowing the science, we knew the stakes to humanity were high and that the opposition to the truth would be fierce, so we knew we had to dig in. But now they are listening. Now they do believe us. Now they say they’re ready to take action. And now we’re wondering if we didn’t create a monster. We’re wondering if they realize how uncertain our projections of future climate are. We wonder if we’ve oversold the science. We’re wondering what happened to our community, that individuals caveat even the most minor questionings of barely-proven climate change evidence, lest they be tagged as “skeptics.” We’re wondering if we’ve let our alarm at the problem trickle to the public sphere, missing all the caveats in translation that we have internalized. And we’re wondering if we’ve let some of our scientists take the science too far, promise too much knowledge, and promote more certainty in ourselves than is warranted.}

He refers to a colleague who allowed his science to be directed by fear:

I came to this place in a few ways. One was a colleague describing a caveat he put into his poster abstract out of fear — yes, fear! (He strongly called into question widely-quoted data supporting a decline in snowpack and advance in spring peak runoff in the northern Rockies.) Another was multiple colleagues giving me independent but similar blistering accounts of the GCMs they work on (upcoming post on this).

He promises more such examples and makes a point that we at CEI have made for years:

In upcoming posts I will give concrete examples of events and discussions from which I draw these conclusions. For now I leave the concerned climsci community with the thoughts of one former Congressional science fellow who is now back in research science (with some additions of my own): dealing with uncertainty is exactly what Congresspeople do, and they do it a lot better than we do. For scientists, uncertainty is an abstract concept, something that feeds into an academic study, a place where the stakes are low and time-scale is long-term. For politicians and unelected decision-makers, uncertainty is life-or-death, yet decisions must still be made. Politicians constantly make decisions amid levels of uncertainty that would stifle the publication of any academic climate change paper. We need to realize that, give the politicians their due, and get the hell out of their way. Give them the science and the uncertainties and let them make the decisions. Overplaying our hand is a dangerous gambit, and may spell big trouble for us in the future.

Quite right. The problem of global warming is not a scientific one. Science can only inform policy choices that have to take economic, political and moral considerations into play as well. Politicians, not scientists, are the professionals at doing that. As soon as we allow the economic, political and moral considerations to be dictated by the science, or, even worse, by a politicized version of the science, then we have abandoned democracy for a form of techno-ochlocracy – rule by those who shout the loudest about the science. I hope Kevin is right and that more scientist will step up and condemn those like Al Gore who distort the science for their own ends while condemning reasonable skepticism as a distortion instead.
There is a great deal at stake here for society and science in general way beyond the question of greenhouse gas restrictions, and that’s why CEI will not be cowed by threats of Nuremberg Trials for “climate deniers.”