Second in a series of posts discussing the impact of ten topics framed by ‘Insights of the Decade’ from the December 17, 2010 special issue of Science Magazine. The topics are: Inflammation, climatology, tricks of light, alien planets, the microbiome, cell development, Martian water, the DNA time machine, cosmology and epigenetics. This post reads more like a political statement than a recitation of climate science, but then that was the main point of the article in Science.
“…But ‘climate hawks’ have lost time and momentum, and many experts now think that adapting to a warming planet, not mitigating emissions, will dominate policy discussion in the decade ahead.” This is the closing sentence of Climatologists Feel the Heat As Science Meets Politics by Richard A. Kerr and Eli Kintisch in the ‘Insights of the Decade’ special issue of Science. The inference of defeat is not the official stance of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), publisher of Science; but it is a significant hint of the sentiment.
Is it too late to stop global warming, and the best we can do is deal with the effects? Is this realistic? Defeatist? Irrelevant? Whatever it is; the article’s insight for the past decade concerning global warming and climatology is that politics can trump science. (Duh, to use the guttural.)
The authors speak of the ‘political backlash’ on global warming as if it were something of a surprise to scientists. Scientists have known since the beginning of global warming research that powerful economic interests, mostly in the energy industry, were against most of the findings. Scientists also know that when it really counts, politics is economics.
Perhaps if there was a surprise for scientists, it was the recent and sudden loss of the public debate. Scientists are generally opinionated folk, given to arguing among themselves about facts and their interpretation. What they may have misunderstood is that modern media delivers very little facts and interpretation, but loves narrative. The narrative doesn’t have to be true, or accurate – just plausible and engaging. In the real world, control of the narrative means winning the debate, and with global warming that narrative has been sold on one main theme: doubt.
Of course there is doubt. The vast scale and utter complexity of global warming climatology is not likely to produce exact and definitive science any time soon. Scientists are comfortable with their own consensus. In fact, with global warming the tendency is to think of the consensus as overwhelming. Unfortunately, the public has become underwhelmed. Here are some reasons why:
The Science article frames the climatology as three big questions: 1. Is the world warming? 2. What role does human activity play? 3. Is the world’s climate self correcting?
The answer to the first question is, more unequivocally with each new study, yes – the world is warming even faster than scientists thought. There is much evidence, but it doesn’t stitch into a nice, neat, and self-documenting narrative. Climate change is slow. It takes decades, if not centuries for temperatures to rise. The effects, even now, are subtle and sometimes contradictory. This is global warming’s most plausible argument, but for now most people can’t see it for themselves.
The answer to the second question is that yes, human activity has a role. However there is a follow-up question, “How much of a role?” This is still in research. Some studies say ‘a big role.’ Other studies say…maybe. Whatever the findings, they are estimates, which is to say they are debatable. Global warming denialists jump up and down on debatable.
The third question is even more difficult. Can nature self-correct? An answer to this question is largely the domain of paleoclimatology, the study of climate in previous epochs. This is a field that barely existed a few decades ago. Studies are beginning to accumulate about previous episodes of global warming (and cooling). They help to develop insights about what might happen now. Those insights indicate, so far, that no – there is no sufficient self-correcting mechanism. But the science behind paleoclimatology is just forming and the data is sparse, at best. That makes its findings debatable.
So none of the three big questions come up with unequivocal answers, in short, in the court of public opinion global warming was and is a case full of circumstantial evidence. There’s also been no lack of lies and dirty tricks, the climatologists’ email debacle for one example. It has not been difficult for those who wish to deny global warming to cast doubt. Besides, when it comes to doom…and the effects of global warming are routinely portrayed as dire…the majority of people seem to prefer doubt.
Without the whole-hearted support of the public and in the face of threats by economic power, is it surprising that politicians lack the will to enact massive, expensive, and controversial measures to halt global warming? No wonder even at the pinnacle of scientific publication, resignation to our climatological fate leaks out around the edges.