A couple weeks ago, the New York Times and other papers reported that Andrew Weaver, a climate modeler at the University of Victoria, had filed a lawsuit against Tim Ball, a former professor of geography at the University of Winnipeg, who in numerous articles and speeches has resisted linking man-made emissions to global warming. According to Weaver, Ball published one particular article in January that described Weaver as lacking basic knowledge about climate science and wrongly stated that Weaver would not participate in the next Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change due to concerns about his credibility. Weaver is suing Ball for libel.
This isn’t the first time we at Slice have heard about climate scientists suing one another, and we wondered how this news reverberated in the field. We contacted Texas A&M Professor of Meteorology and Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon ’84, SM ’87, PhD ’90 to find out.
Slice: How do you think stories about tension between climate scientists and skeptics impact public understanding of climate change?
Nielsen-Gammon: I think such stories do very little directly for public understanding of climate change, but that’s not such a bad thing. Climate change science is an enormous subject, involving about a dozen scientific disciplines. It takes your typical very smart person about six years of specialized training in a single subdiscipline before his or her opinion regarding the validity of a new scientific paper in just that particular subdiscipline becomes worth listening to. The idea that the public will someday be sufficiently educated in the science to critically evaluate competing claims about climate change is completely foolish.
Instead, the public could stand to learn a lot more about science as a social and intellectual institution and scientists as human beings participating in that institution. Except for those attending rare schools such as MIT, most college graduates will have only the vaguest notion of what their professors do with the rest of their time when they’re not teaching. Surveys show that people’s trust in scientists remains high, but they probably have very little idea what to trust about science and scientists and what not to trust.
For example, suppose a new study comes out, one of sufficiently general interest that it’s reported in the press. An appropriate response for a scientist would be to suspend judgment on the study until the opportunity arises to read it carefully, or if the paper is somewhat farther afield the scientist might wait a couple of years to see whether others are able to build on the research or refute it. Meanwhile, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the person least able to comment objectively on the results (the lead author) receives most of the press attention, peer-reviewed science is normally presented to the public as fact, worthy of belief. So in this example the public trust in scientists is higher than it ought to be.
If only the public actually understood scientists as fairly smart human beings driven by varying mixtures of ambition, curiosity, orneriness, self-confidence, and altruism. If only they understood how scientific findings evolve from ideas to possibilities to working hypotheses to what passes for scientific facts, and could identify at what stage in that evolution a particular bit of scientific information is located. Then they’d be able to begin to accurately evaluate scientific claims, not through an understanding of the science itself, but through an understanding of the context of the scientific claims.
In that regard, stories about scientific or quasi-scientific disputes are valuable because they give people insight into scientists as human beings with real emotions and conflicts. As they remove scientists from the lofty and imaginary ideal of pure pursuit of knowledge, they bring scientists down to earth where people can start discovering that they can relate to individual scientists and understand their perspective.
Slice: When it comes to climate science, do you feel driven to both pursue research AND participate in national debate about climate change? If so, how do you balance the two?
Nielsen-Gammon: I’m sure I’d be happily squirreled away in my office if not for having become Texas State Climatologist in 2000. This was before climate science had become so political, and I did not foresee what I was getting into. Part of the mission of a state climatologist is to help make climate information available and understandable to the public and to policymakers so that they are able to make the best use of it. So my job inherently involves outreach, helping people understand what climate science does or does not tell us about what’s going to happen in my state six months from now or what might happen to the Earth fifty years from now.
Texas has a traditionally oil-based economy, so there’s naturally a lot of resistance to the idea that fossil fuels are evil. I think this has led a lot of people to tilt too far in the other direction and accept the argument that massive releases of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere are harmless. Most people haven’t come to these opinions through extensive evaluations of the science, but rather through sources of opinion that they trust or from inferring the political motivations of those arguing one course of action or another. To be effective in my own role, I have to stay away from the politics and serve as an apolitical source of scientific information. I don’t go around arguing for this or that policy, but I do want people to understand the risks.
I think even most climate scientists don’t have a good understanding of climate science. My own understanding has been helped a great deal by my blogging on weather and climate issues for the Houston Chronicle and by reading various other blogs. I can better appreciate the wide variety of points of view on climate issues and can better recognize and avoid the framings that will excite half the audience and turn the other half off.
I wasn’t even a climate scientist when I became Texas State Climatologist. Over the past decade, I’ve gone through a progression of learning about climate science, then dabbling in climate science, then doing more serious climate science, and now I’m finally at the point where I’m receiving significant external funding for climate research. Because of my position, my climate-related research is of direct relevance to Texas: things like a more accurate understanding of the local climate record or the ability to drill down to a particular farm or neighborhood and determine the drought situation there. My outreach helps guide my research and my research informs my outreach, so I think a natural balance develops. There’s so much to do that I’m sort of lucky…I can focus on the questions and issues that are most interesting and rewarding.
Slice: What do you think is the single most effective thing we as a country could do to address the problems posed by man-made climate change?
Nielsen-Gammon: Acknowledging that potential problems exist would be a great start. There’s a lot of scientific debate about how bad those problems might be, but much of the public has been completely fooled into thinking that the scientific debate is about whether or not there will be any problems at all. There are some deep moral questions here, such as the tradeoff between environmental preservation and economic growth in our country and elsewhere in the world. One side likes to pretend that preserving the environment will not hinder economic growth, while the other side likes to pretend that economic growth will not harm the environment. Neither side is asking the tough questions.
Slice: In terms of climate research at Texas A & M, what projects are you most excited about?
Nielsen-Gammon: Texas A&M is host institution for the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, which sends drill ships throughout the world to recover cores from beneath the ocean and learn about past climates, past ecosystems, and the geologic evolution of the Earth. Study of past climates is arguably the best way to understand what the climate system is capable of doing and how sensitive the climate system is to small changes in its drivers. We know that at times the Earth has been quite a bit warmer and at other times quite a bit colder. Being able to understand and simulate those past climates gives us some hope that we can say something definitive about future climates, since our future climate will be different from the one which we observe presently and we can’t just assume that everything will work the same in the future as it does now.
Dr. Nielsen-Gammon has been a professor of meteorology and a Texas state climatologist since 2000. Much of his current work involves air pollution meteorology. He has employed sophisticated techniques, such as Ensemble Kalman Filter data assimilation, to produce high-resolution simulations of the Houston/Galveston area for the purposes of photochemical modeling and policy development. He has developed conceptual models of ozone formation in the Houston area and is working on the integration of a variety of observational information to determine the spatial extent and magnitude of the Houston urban heat island.